Globe On Gender Bias In The OR: Subtle But Persistent

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Don't miss this important story by the Boston Globe's Liz Kowalczyk on persistent gender bias (subtle and sometimes not so) in the operating room.

Following news of a high-profile gender discrimination lawsuit that earlier this month ended with a massive $7 million settlement against Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and its former chief of surgery, Kowalczyk reports that bias against female surgeons still exists but it tends to be more under-the-radar and potentially insidious. After interviewing 10 female surgeons, she offers some examples:

--A female surgeon pointedly asks why her patient is late being wheeled into the operating room, and is accused by nurses of being too aggressive.

--Surgeons meet weekly at 7 a.m. at one hospital, just when some of their female colleagues are home getting their children dressed and fed.

-- And several female neurosurgeons and orthopedic surgeons said women in these overwhelmingly male specialties often feel they must work longer hours and operate on more patients than their male colleagues to prove they belong.

...Still, female surgeons can experience subtler obstacles, including pressure to behave a certain way and conflicting family responsibilities.

I'll add two more Boston doctor anecdotes to this list. First, one longtime neurologist recently told me she happened to discover she was earning far less than her male counterparts. Second, a general surgeon I know, who, after taking off several years to care for a young child, returned to the job market. At one interview, she was asked what her husband did for work. When she replied that he's a manager in the financial sector, the interviewer responded (and I paraphrase here), Oh, well, then you don't need to work.

Kowalczyk reports that gender bias within the medical arena these days generally doesn't include sexist comments or a Mad-Men-like milieu. Rather, it tends to involve fewer promotions and recognition, particularly if you're on the Mommy track:

Dr. Dana Fugelso, a surgeon who said Fischer took away her operating room time and secretary while she was out on maternity leave for 12 weeks in 2002 — and then refused to restore them when she returned — believes subtle bias continues. Fischer denied those allegations in court documents included in the Warfield case, saying his policy on operating room time applied equally to all types of leaves.

“If someone today thinks sex discrimination is a thing of the past, they are just not looking,’’ Fugelso said. “It’s more the lack of ability to get promoted into higher academic levels and higher administrative jobs.’’

A few years back we wrote about Brigham & Women's Hospital increasing health insurance premium payments for hundreds of part-time workers by triple digits in some cases. Most of these part-timers are women (reflecting a national trend in which about two-thirds of part-timers are women.) Another form of bias against women?

Readers, doctors, how does this bias play out in your world? What happens when you need to leave work to deal with family matters? Do you get dirty looks or rolling eyes? Please let us know.

This program aired on February 25, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Rachel Zimmerman Twitter Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 




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