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Women in Medicine: 5 Tips for Finding Your Voice

Inas Abuali, MD · Duma Lab

Disclosures

August 24, 2021

I moved to the United States a decade ago. As an international medical graduate (IMG) without social ties or community support, one can face a steep learning curve when arriving in the US. One of the first pieces of advice that I received from senior IMGs was to "keep my head down" and "avoid all conflicts." With the ongoing stress of visa paperwork and learning the nuances of a new culture and healthcare system, well-intended but ultimately harmful and isolating advice such as this emerges.

I rarely saw people who looked like me in positions of leadership or on the podiums of national organizations, which contributed to my growing isolation. I looked different. I sounded different. I often wondered about my place here and whether I could truly fit in or belong, and whether the decision to leave my home country to pursue training in the US was a misjudgment.

Writing has always been my safe haven and my way of making sense of the world, especially as a shy and introverted person. Initially, I was reluctant to share my words with an audience. What if they were too much…too vulnerable…too honest? Additionally, I always felt the added pressure that as a Muslim, Middle Eastern woman, my words could be misconstrued to represent all Muslim, Middle Eastern women. They do not!

Over the years, I gradually found my voice and learned to embrace my individuality. With every writing piece, I revealed a little bit more of myself and found heartfelt connections and joys in return.

From a now-mentor and friend who asked me to write with her because I "write from the heart" (leading to this current piece and many collaborations), to those who have shared their own personal stories of grief and loss when I wrote about my mother's death, people have reached out to say "I didn't know someone else felt that way," which has led to close friendships. And I was overjoyed when a hijab-wearing Muslim medical student wrote to tell me that she is thrilled to see "someone who looks like me" out there. Representation matters. Slowly, through my writing, I am becoming a role model.

In all honesty, I often still struggle with "striking the right balance" that we women, especially minoritized ones, try to conform to. The deeply engrained societal dogmas rear their ugly heads as a loud voice that I try to silence, telling me that this is "too much," "you don't want to come across as aggressive," and "use a softer tone." Recently, I caught myself self-censoring my written words. I look across my desktop and I see unfinished pieces that I abandoned for fear that they may "offend."

This made me stop and reflect on how to speak your truth and find your voice as a minoritized woman in medicine.

  1. Find the right forum to share your thoughts.
    I am incredibly grateful to have found avenues where my writing is embraced and encouraged. My editors have gone above and beyond in making sure that my pieces stay true to my voice.

  2. Surround yourself with people who uplift and support you.
    I have thrived in the company of like-minded women who have celebrated my wins and constantly encouraged me to remain authentic. Our #DumaLab community even has a group text message through which we constantly check in, support, and inspire one another.

  3. Think about what you want your platform to look like.
    What are you passionate about and what are you advocating for? For me, it is important to discuss issues related to women in medicine, IMGs, social justice, and medical education. I am not an expert on any of these topics but have worked on educating myself and discussing ideas with others in the field to determine how to make my corner of the world a little better. Remember that readers recognize authenticity; practice what you preach.

  4. Leverage your privilege and power to discuss important topics.
    As physicians, we can and should speak up and advocate for others, especially minoritized groups, junior trainees, and those who are underrepresented in medicine. We must critically and professionally examine the status quo and discuss what can and should be better.

  5. Remember that what you share online will outlive you.
    Do not write in anger or spite. Ask a friend to look over a piece that hits too close to home. While your opinions are your own and may not necessarily reflect those of your institution, they are viewed by current and prospective employers, patients, and colleagues. The adage of "Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?" can often be applied to the written word as well.

At the end of the day, I still look different. I still sound different. However, whether in joy, grief, or despair, I have found that I can always pick up my pen in a world full of noise and be unapologetically and unabashedly my authentic self.

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About Dr Inas Abuali

Inas Abuali, MD, is an incoming hematologist-oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School. She is passionate about medical education, curriculum design, and professional career development. She is dedicated to improving mentorship opportunities for medical trainees, especially for underrepresented groups in medicine. She is committed to bridging disparities in cancer care by improving access and quality of care to underserved populations. Connect with her on Twitter: @inas_md

The Duma Lab, formerly known as the Social Justice League, was founded in August 2019 and focuses on social justice issues in medicine, including discrimination and gender bias in academic and clinical medicine, cancer health disparities, and medical education.

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