Women Doctors: We Don't Need to Act Like Men 

Nisha Mehta, MD


February 03, 2020

"What does a physician look like?"

I start many of my talks about changing demographics in medicine by asking this question. Likely, the gut instinct on the part of most, whether patient or physician, is to conjure up an image of a distinguished gentleman in a white coat, generally in the later stages of practice, and white.

I understand this, as even among staunch advocates for female physicians such as myself, most of the portraits lining our medical school hallways were of physicians matching this profile. They left an impression of the mold we were supposed to fit and whose careers we strived to emulate.

The issue? Well, I look nothing like that stereotypical physician, either physically or demographically. Many of these physicians were sole breadwinners with substantial support at home when it came to raising children or household duties.

I am a South Asian female radiologist, married to a surgeon, with two young sons. Many of today's younger physicians could also point out key differences between their lives and the lives of the stereotypical physician referenced above.

What I've realized over the years, though, is that as physicians, male or female, we tend to hide our more unique characteristics and conform to an antiquated stereotype of what it means to be a physician. Among female physicians, who have spent years trying to fight these stereotypes and proving that we can do everything our male counterparts can do, this often means de-emphasizing the things that make us women.

But being a female physician has its own challenges, and we've got enough glass ceilings to shatter without having to worry about having to conform to stereotypes. We shouldn't be afraid to be who we are, or worry that others will take us less seriously if we do something feminine.

Ask any female physician to tell you a story of what it means to be a female physician. You'll hear several common anecdotes: "I went into labor while on call at 39.5 weeks pregnant"; "I was called a nurse while my medical student was called doctor"; "I pumped in a hospital closet"; "I was made to feel guilty for taking time off for my child's school play while everybody talked about what a good father my partner was for leaving early to make his son's baseball practice"; "I was asked about my plans for having a family during a job interview"; "I felt so uncomfortable with the locker room talk on my surgical rotation," etc., etc. The list goes on and on.

There's more, though. If you dig deeper into the implications of these stories, you hit on things that increase burnout and threaten career longevity among female physicians. This is where I really worry about things from a policy standpoint.

Female Differences Should Be Promoted, Not Hidden

One of the main points in my work to change the culture of medicine is that our unique characteristics are important and should influence us. The title "physician" carries with it many responsibilities, but so do the other titles that we carry in our lives. They are all intertwined, and success in our medical careers requires acknowledging our differences.

Despite the fact that most of us pay lip service to this concept, many female physicians are afraid to fully assert their differences. Why?

1. We believe that if we act like women, it will hold us back professionally.

This is, of course, absurd. First of all, lots of good data demonstrate the excellence in quality of care by female physicians and cite traits that patients appreciate among their women physicians.

Additionally, across professions, there is a real link between confidence and success. Embracing who we are automatically commands respect, and professionalism does not mean that you cannot tell stories about your children. Wearing jewelry that reflects your fashion sense is no different from wearing a necktie with symbols related to your favorite sports team.

2. We worry that complaining or advocating for ourselves will be perceived as being difficult.

So many of us apologize before asking for something we want or don't bring up things which could actually contribute to patient care or the work environment, because we are scared of how we will look—something our male counterparts, on the whole, rarely do.


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