Can women be professionals? Advice from a woman in a “man’s” world.

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Merriam Webster defines professionalism as “the skill, good judgment, and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well”.

In the past 3 weeks, a few things have happened that have brought this topic to mind.  To give you a couple of examples:

While watching the celebrity apprentice, my au pair made the comment that it wasn’t fair for the teams to be split by gender – that the women were at a disadvantage.  I expressed some surprise by this sentiment (being a product of an all-girls’ high school and all), and asked her why.  She replied, “Because women don’t work together well.”

Two weeks ago, one of the ER nurses asked me if I had been a nurse before I became a doctor.  One of the best indirect compliments I have ever received.  This is a “big deal” so to speak because growing up, (and by growing up I mean in medical school and residency) as physicians you are taught certain life “truths”, which vary by specialty and by gender.  One of these “truths” is that nurses and female doctors do NOT work well together.  It is whispered about and discussed as fact, passed down from generations of residents before you – nurses will give you a harder time, they are nicer to the male doctors, don’t let your nurses call you by your first name because then they won’t respect you, etc, etc.

Another friend who has been very successful at her job and has all the evaluations to prove it is leaving this job.  Partly because her evaluations are filled with not just job performance reports but also reports about her personality.  Personality?  Really?!  I don’t mean unprofessional behavior – cursing, being verbally abusive, etc, I mean personality.  Like, your personality is “too assertive”, etc.

So this really got me thinking – can women really NOT work together?  Are we NOT able to give or receive constructive criticism and feedback professionally?  Are we subject to interpretations of our job performance based upon how well-liked we are instead of how efficient, productive, and skilled we are?

Every Friday morning, I attend “M&M”, aka morbidity and mortality conference.  This conference is well-known to surgeons everywhere.  In this conference, complications are presented in a PowerPoint format, with at least a 34 sized font, and flashed up on a huge screen in front of all the surgeons in our department to dissect, comment upon, and quite frankly, judge.

So for those of you not in medicine, let me try and describe it to you in a way to makes this process hit home.  Think of your last mistake at work – maybe you missed or forgot a deadline, flubbed a presentation, didn’t make the best impression on a client.  Any mistake you can think of –  large or small.  Okay, got one in mind?  Now, think of a detailed report on that mistake… a timeline describing all of your missteps or mistaken thoughts… when these occurred, whether they were witnessed or not, your boss’ account of what happened, your secretary’s impressions of what happened, the outcome of the mistake, and a poll of similar people in your position around the country and whether or not they have made that same mistake also.  Your worst and most embarrassing moments, picked at, highlighted, judged, written down, projected on a screen, and worst of all – viewed by everyone in your office, company, etc.  Have chest pain yet?

Well, this is what your surgeons do every single week.  Luckily, most of us don’t have our own complications presented every week, but it happens to all of us.  And, we all have to learn to be “professional” about it.  In other words, we have to be sensitive enough to our mistakes to not make them again, but not so sensitive that we can’t move on emotionally and be productive.  In other words, not take things too personally.  We have to understand that these mistakes we make are actions, not personality traits.  I am not a “bad” person because I made a wrong decision.  One of my favorite surgeons from residency always said, “The last thing a patient needs is a surgeon who feels sorry from himself.”

Okay, okay, so what the hell does this have to do with women as professionals?

I can clearly delineate and separate professional actions and personal happiness, because I have been trained to do so.  Quite frankly, given my years spent attending and participating in M&M conferences, this “skill” is critical to emotional survival and professional success.  I have to keep the emotions at bay so I can accept the criticism in order to make myself better.  I am not perfect.  All I can hope is that I will be better tomorrow than I am today, and sometimes I need help with that.  And sometimes that help is in the form of criticism.  However, most women don’t have to sit through an M&M conference every week, and I feel struggle with this ability to separate the professional from the personal.

Let me be blunt, Women will never achieve the same levels of professional success as men, until we act professionally TO EACH OTHER, and think and judge OURSELVES as professionals.

So, do I have this all figured out?  Hell, no.  But here are some thoughts and advice on what has helped me.

All female relationships can be tricky… if we let them be.

As a species, most of us are plagued to some degree by insecurity.  We are taught at a young age to be people pleasers, and ergo a lot of us judge ourselves by how well we please other people.  In addition, we unwittingly often compare ourselves to other women, regardless of the differences in our situations.  For example, I found myself one morning, sitting in the pediatrician’s waiting room, comparing myself to another mom with a similarly aged child.  I had just finished working over 24 hours, and looked every inch of it.  She was enviably thin; her hair, her makeup and her clothes were well appointed and fashionable.  Her toddler belonged in a GAP ad.  I looked slightly homeless with my child still in his pajamas and covered in maple syrup from the pancakes I had bribed him with on our way to the appointment.  I caught myself judging how I am as a mother and as a woman based on the appearance of a complete stranger in a damn waiting room.  I have two degrees, am a double boarded surgeon and found myself in a thought process that was a complete waste of 5 minutes of my life that I will never get back.  I don’t know this woman, so why the hell was I envying her?  Because, regardless of education, our successes and accomplishments, that is what many of us do.  We judge our worth, our success at life, by how we compare to other women.  And this, is absolutely absurd.

When two dogs meet, there are cautious glances exchanged, followed by some evaluation at a distance, then some butt-sniffing, and ending with a silent acceptance of the other animal’s existence, or some baring of teeth, or some tail wagging.  We, as women, are similar – well, without the butt-sniffing (in most cases).  When we meet another woman, often times our insecurities dictate our behavior and our opinion of her… however unfounded those opinions might be.

Now place all these behaviors and thoughts in the professional world, and let’s complicate matters by adding a real, or implied hierarchy.

Overall, this milieu can lead to a level of discomfort amongst women who are all on the same team, but with different roles and qualifications.  However, I am here to tell you that this discomfort can be overcome.  I am blessed to have worked with an amazing group of nurses throughout my career, and even though we aren’t “supposed” to work well together, we do.  In fact, I count many of them as very close friends.

My advice for success in the professional world as a woman, whether you work in a predominantly female world or male world is:

Have the confidence to separate the actions from the person.

In other words, learn how to give and receive negative criticism professionally.  Whether you are the one that “messed up”, or you are the person giving feedback to a colleague, separate the personal from the professional.  She or he isn’t “mean” because they gave you constructive criticism or had to address an issue with you.  If you have an argument or disagreement with a colleague about a project, is she or he really being “difficult” or are you just two people with two different opinions and perspectives?  You don’t need to and ask your boss if he or she is “mad” at you because you failed to meet a deadline or ask your colleague if she doesn’t “like” you because you had a disagreement.  Keep it about the job!  Ask instead how you can improve, what could you have done better.

Keep the emotions in check… in public, at least.

We have all had those days – when nothing is going right, you made a mistake, disappointed yourself or your boss with your performance, you have had a disagreement with your colleague, etc.  It is completely normal to have emotions, even strong emotions about things that happen at work.  I’m not saying you can’t have those feelings, I’m just asking that you to please not consider the public water cooler as the place to express your unfiltered, raw emotions.  Nothing wrong with crying, ladies.  There just isn’t any crying in baseball.  Hold it together until you are in your office, locker room, bathroom, etc.  It is hard to be taken seriously in a career if you are viewed as fragile, or a bundle of nerves and emotions.

Finally, for the love, let’s learn to Respect, Respect, Respect each other.

Let’s stop calling each other bitches.

Let’s start accepting and embracing our differences.

Let’s stop viewing our mistakes as personal faults.

Let’s start giving and taking negative criticism with CONFIDENCE.

Let’s stop judging ourselves based upon our impressions of other women – This leads to feelings of insecurity, which often leads to actions based on insecurity.

Let’s start having the CONFIDENCE to embrace and support each other, and let’s start proving everyone WRONG.  Functioning as either boss or employee, women CAN work together well, succeed, and LEAD.

I mean, we are the superior gender, right?  😉

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Top 8 reasons you should marry a female physician

A couple of years ago, I asked a friend of mine how she met her husband.  It was at a bar, and when she asked his occupation he replied, “I work for the city.”  She took that to mean he was a construction worker.  They began dating and quickly fell in love.  Much to her surprise about a month into their relationship, she learned he actually played for the NFL team in their city.

Two nights ago, I had the pleasure of having dinner with two very pretty surgical residents.  As they are both single, the conversation quickly turned towards the “single life” here in our city.  One began to tell me she uses dental hygienist as her go-to occupation when meeting men, while the other uses flight attendant.  I have to admit, the flight attendant bit is pretty genius – it actually explains our crazy schedules pretty well!

But as I thought about this more and more, I realized that I hadn’t been surprised that they come up with alternative careers for themselves when they meet men for the first time.  I wasn’t surprised, because I too, operate under the assumption that although NFL players might want to hide their occupation because of too much interest, we female physicians hide ours because of lack of interest.

But it isn’t just me that thinks male and female physicians are viewed very differently on the dating scene.  Think about it.  On Grey’s Anatomy, you had Dr. McDreamy and then came Dr. McSteamy.  But where was all the fanfare for the Dr. McFoxy or Dr. McHotties on the show?

So, in an effort to enlighten the public, I am going to list my top 8 reasons for why anyone and everyone should date or marry a female physician (and yes, this includes surgeons!).  For all my Dr. McHotties out there, this is for you!! 

1.  We know CPR.

Someone once gave me the advice to marry the person you want to be in the trenches with.  In other words, when the s&%^ is hitting the fan, who do you want next to you, being your partner, and getting you through the hard times?  So, why not be with someone who knows how to save your life, literally?

2.  We understand hard work.

Whether it is gaining admittance into medical school, suffering through Histology, placing into a residency, or working for 30 hours straight without sleep, we know what hard work looks like, because we have done it.  Marriage, at times, can require a lot of work, and trust me, you want a partner who will work as hard as you in ensuring each other’s happiness.

3.  We handle stress well and multi-task like pros.

Your in-laws have stayed too long, the baby is screaming, the cable is out, the game is on, and who knows what your firstborn is doing, wait, why is there water coming from underneath the bathroom door?  Well, the saying in my house is, “At least no one is bleeding”.  And then, if someone is bleeding, expect to hear, “No worries, all bleeding stops.”  Because it really is true, all bleeding does stop, and we understand this.  Stopping a bathroom flood in comparison to stopping a bleeding subclavian artery or delivering a baby with an umbilical cord around its neck?  Cake walk.

4.  We are financially viable.

You may make more money than us, we may make more than you.  Guess what?  We don’t care.  You should appreciate that we can help our family and will always have a job.  Life is unpredictable.  If you lose your job or become disabled or want to go back to school, you won’t have to worry about how your family will eat or be clothed.  Think outside the box, guys, it is your family’s income and stability that matters, and we will always be able to help.

5.  We are smart.

Um, duh.  If you can’t understand the benefits of being married to an intelligent woman, then I can’t help you.  I don’t do brain transplants.

6.  We have good personalities.

Being a doctor isn’t just being a good technician.  We have to sell ourselves and our skills to our patients.  We have to engender trust from strangers, which requires a good “bedside manner”, ie a good personality!

7.  We tend to be low maintenance.

When you have slept in bunk beds in your late twenties and lived off of the most likely expired peanut butter and graham crackers found in the dark recesses of random cabinets, high maintenance really isn’t in our vocabulary.  We don’t expect limos and hot air balloons on dates.  Just show up and have food served at something other than room temperature and you are way ahead in the game!

8.  We have a unique perspective on life.

We take care of sick people, we have witnessed the moments that Death has come to take our patients away, and we have comforted those left behind.  When this is how you spend your days, we are much less likely to give you hell over forgetting to pick up your underwear off the floor.

Although, for real, pick up your damn underwear 🙂

McHotties rule!