Gender is a big topic in medicine at the moment. Since Elizabeth Blackwell (US) graduated in 1849 and Elizabeth Garret Anderson (UK) gained recognition as a Medical Practitioner in 1865, women have been making headway in taking their rightful place in our ‘honourable’ profession. Constance Stone, Australia’s first woman in medicine, graduated in the US in 1888 as the University of Melbourne did not admit women. With hindsight, it appears immensely unfair that women could not study medicine and at what cost to humanity? It has been tough on those leading from the front in what is indisputable social progress. This progress does carry with it implications for our profession and for interactions with our patients and peers.
As our profession becomes more gender-balanced, the status of medicine becomes more dependent on the general status of women in society. Some will know of what happened to the standard and resourcing of the medical profession in eastern block countries when a majority of female practitioners were trained and employed without the status of women changing in those societies. Thus, if we are to be a gender-balanced profession and maintain the status of the profession then we all have an interest in the status of women. Self interest for all!
The majority of patients presenting to general practitioners are female and having access to a greater number of female doctors is positive for those who seek this. Research shows this correlates with the more ‘patient-centered’ approach of female doctors; but as men and women have the same medical training I suspect this is a social skill of women rather than a professional attribute. At the start of my career approximately 40% of women preferred female doctors for PAP tests, 15% preferred men and the rest had no preference. I could find very little data in Pubmed on current preferences but in a recent paper on gender preferences of men with erectile dysfunction it was approximately the inverse. Clearly this varies with cultural influences; importantly the lack of access to a doctor of the preferred gender may lead to reduced uptake of a required service, particularly in non-acute care. This may extend to colonoscopy.
I am aware that modern society is more sexualised and this almost certainly has an impact on gender preference in the consultation. At a Taylor Mac performance I recently attended he described his gender as ‘none’ and his sexual preference as ‘audience member’! Should we ask patients not only their preferred provider gender but also their preferred sexual preference? Would this change things for patients? A heterosexual male patient, whom I have counselled through a distressing period in his life, told me that he would prefer to see another doctor for his check up as he liked me! Presumably this was due to the possibility of an intimate examination. Very young girls with asthma are quite often reluctant to show me their chest when I am examining them. Sexualisation of life further promotes gender alignment in the consultation out of a feeling of safety.
An unintended result of increasing gender alignment is the deskilling of general practitioners in gender-specific medicine. I would propose that this is already a significant problem, added to by an increasing number of doctors working in primary care who are uncomfortable with cross-gender medicine for cultural reasons. Some avoid this aspect of practice altogether. In large cities this is not such an issue but in rural practice it can be catastrophic. The wonderful female doctor visiting program is a patch for this but is not a long term solution as it is very expensive and does not address men’s needs. All doctors need to understand gender and be in touch with those aspects of gendered behaviour that make others feel either comfortable or uncomfortable. General practitioners must take care of humanity, leaving gender preference to their patients.
What are the consequences within the profession itself of becoming gender-balanced? Clearly there are more opportunities for cross-gender interactions with peers; some of these will become sexual. One visible result is the larger number of dual-doctor families rather than the common doctor-nurse couplings of previous generations. Let’s not get too hung up on people making sexual approaches within the profession even if these are a little foolish or fumbled. When the approach is sexual harassment then there are well established legal pathways. But any association of such liaison with job progression is completely unacceptable – whether through negative threats (“you won’t progress if you don’t”) or positive inducements (“I could do a lot for your career”). Calling this out for what it is should bring the spotlight on the unwanted attention rather than the individual in receipt. Managers must address this, and if the person providing the unwanted attention is the manager, then there must be a third party involved.
Our professional colleges could be a means for this to be dealt with when there is no other mechanism or the system is failing.
We must also consider the possible inappropriate calling of harassment. I am a non-gendered shoulder-touching and kissing sort of person and not everyone finds that acceptable (male and female); but it is my culture and I have got better at recognising when it is not accepted by others. I have never made any sexual advance to anyone at work in my career but I have had one doctor feel uncomfortable with my approach to physical contact. How far can we be expected to change for individuals? It is a general question worth asking. Recognising others’ cultures is important but being genuine and relaxed is also a positive attribute. How far does a widely acceptable non-sexist culture have to take into account another’s culture in these matters? The answer is probably “to reasonable lengths”.
So let’s all be reasonable in most matters but intolerant of any indications that women are being treated in a way that is unfair. This is all about fairness and humanity.