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On Being a Woman in Medicine
One woman's reflection on being a single female professional.

Having been asked to write on the topic of "women in medicine," especially as it reflects my journey, I first wondered if this topic is still relevant in this day. There are more women entering medicine now than men. Shouldn't we start writing articles on what it means to be a man in medicine? And yet there are still certain aspects of medicine that are unique to women, reflecting elements of our society that are not egalitarian—either due to our sociology or due to just basic immutable differences between males and females.

On Being a Woman in Medicine

My own story in short

I was a young graduate from medical school, and I immediately entered solo family practice, providing my patients with intrapartum obstetric care, inpatient hospital and nursing home care and selected house calls, especially in the case of palliative care.

After seven years of full-time practice, I "sold" my practice (in Calgary, a practice isn't worth much) and married a widower with two young children, Eleanor and Jonathan, aged three and six years old. This gentleman happened to be the local Christian Medical and Dental Society staff worker—Dan Hardock! I couldn't handle the responsibility of running my own practice as well as handle the transitions of starting an instant family. In February 2004, after one-and-a-half years of marriage, our daughter Beatryce joined our family. I am now working part-time (four hours per day, two to three times per week) in a community health centre.

Being a single doctor in social settings

Having been a single doctor until my mid-30s, I certainly understand this perspective. Since I did obstetrics my social time may have been more limited than that of other single professional women, but I still made time for hobbies such as choir singing, spending time with friends and family, hiking, cross-country skiing and traveling. I lived quite intensely—my little townhouse functioned mostly as a bed and breakfast.

When asked about my occupation, I occasionally started telling people I just "worked in an office" and hoped they'd be satisfied with that explanation. I did this because I noticed that often people would immediately come to certain conclusions about a single female doctor. A common attitude, for example, is that a female doctor should restrict her working hours in order to meet a partner. Often older Evangelical women would hint that "if she wasn't a hoity-toity professional woman who probably thinks she's better than us, she'd have a better chance of meeting someone."

Maybe they were right: meeting an eligible bachelor often didn't even turn into a date because, without wanting to generalize, I did truly feel that they were scared off by the fact that I was a doctor. Even making new friends—at church, for example—I found people assumed that you must have your life so together that you couldn't identify with the average person.

… I found that people assumed that you must have your life so together …

To be honest, I ran into a bit less of this attitude in secular than in church circles. I think it reflects the fact that the Church is still coming to terms with women's roles, wanting to evaluate them in the light of Scripture and working out what that means in our society and age. Let me digress for a minute to focus on the Church's evaluation of the role of women.

In our age, the need—or perceived need—of more than one income is significant. Part of this need serves to maintain our lifestyle, which includes a nice home, a car and holidays, but it also facilitates saving up for kids' educations, for retirement and for supporting parents who are increasingly able to live longer, often with disabilities that present an increased financial burden on their children. Especially if the woman has a high-income profession, the question of who should be the main bread-winner may come down to raw finances. Another thing the Church grapples with is the result of what has happened generally in society.

Women are no longer satisfied with the old paradigm—having few professional options, and then usually just working to tide them over until they can stay at home and be both housekeeper and mother. Societal values used to reflect the Church's values, since they used to be intertwined. Now, with societal values no longer being dictated by the Church, Christians have to weigh the values that they see in the world and work out for themselves what a Christian woman's role is. This difficult balance touches on what I perceive the root to be of the Christian's uneasiness, especially in older generations, in understanding and accepting a Christian professional woman.

Inter-professional aspects

Having focused on the social aspect, I want to look at collegial relationships. I am glad to say that I cannot recall having been made to feel an inferior doctor by male colleagues just because I am a woman. Whether this is because of the time I live in or because I am in family practice—a field now almost dominated by women—I can't say. From friends' reports, I do think that there are bastions of male chauvinism in certain specialties—orthopaedic surgery comes to mind but how this is improving I must leave to specialist colleagues to answer.

The patient's perspective

People often tell me why they prefer to have a "lady doctor." Besides the obvious comfort level when it came to gynaecological exams, I hear from many patients—male and female—that a woman is more compassionate and more insightful. A woman's "venus" qualities, to use a pop psychology term—the relational aspects that I do think may be more strongly developed in women on average—probably have an advantage in certain settings. However, to be pegged as a type of Florence Nightingale in contrast to unfeeling and generally uncaring authoritative male doctors is a case of over-generalization that serves neither patients nor doctors. The patient-doctor relationship comes down to comfort level (if the doctor is of the opposite sex), a sense of trust in the doctor's professional skills and, ultimately, just an interpersonal "fit" between two people in a professional setting. Thus in my mind, gender distinction is largely left to the realm of the patient's imagination.

To specialize or not to specialize, that is the question

The choice of whether to go into family practise or to become a specialist (and in the latter case, the choice of specialty) for a woman is still greatly influenced by the "reproductive factor." A single woman may choose a specialty simply by interest; however a lot of women, whether single or not, choose their field of practice by evaluating how it fits with the future potential of having children. Will this residency program grant me leave during the pregnancy and after? Is it possible to breastfeed or pump while working in this clinic setting? Can I leave this kind of practice for a few years to raise kids and then reintegrate into this field?

Can I leave this kind of practice for a few years to raise kids and then reintegrate into this field?

I think this is the area currently most in flux for medical women—the role of mother. This is influenced by desires that I also see in male colleagues: the desire not to be as overworked as their older male colleagues and to be an involved member of the family, including actively raising kids and sharing other domestic duties. As society is becoming more flexible, stay-at-home dads are not looked down upon as much as in the past, and paternity leave reflects this change. This willingness of fathers to be involved gives women more choice than ever before of different combinations of staying home, working part-time, having a dad at home for the kids or job sharing. As well, the fact that people change careers now a few times in their life gives added freedom of choice by encouraging doctors to change the focus of their practise of medicine (more so in some specialties than others) to suit their stage of life.

Consequently, I do believe that one's calling can change throughout one's lifetime—from taking time to be a full-time parent, to full-time practise when kids are older, to overseas work in small or large chunks during any of these stages.

My own conclusions

Taking this back to my personal scenario, I am very thankful to be in a profession where I can make enough money working "very part-time" to be able to contribute financially to my family. This is a great bonus that I don't underestimate. I am grateful that CUPS, one of the inner city clinics in Calgary, has given me the opportunity to "dabble" in medicine right now. As well, I have the privilege that my Mom is currently able to help out with child-care; my choice might well change if she were to become incapacitated and I had to hire outside help.

The fact that my husband, Dan, works out of a home office is often frustrating for him, as he sometimes gets looped into domestic help when he needs to get his own work done, but the flexibility to quickly help out with rides for the kids, for example, is very useful.

I do believe that Jonathan and Eleanor have benefited greatly from having a consistent caregiver who is involved in their daily activities. Beatryce is now almost a year old—the time has just flown. Having experienced the speed at which time flies, I want to miss as few of her precious baby and toddler moments as possible. I enjoy being a mom so much—I gladly embrace the traditional role that it encompasses, even though our financial situation would look much better if I worked full-time and Dan stayed at home. However, the degree to which I am enjoying or executing the role of housekeeper that is usually associated with the "stay-at-home" role will remain for another discussion … .

Christin Hilbert Hardock, MD, practices medicine in Calgary, Alberta.

Originally published in Focus, Summer 2005.




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