At the age of 13 I chose sciences in my O levels and sealed my fate.
At 17 I joined Med school.
At 22 I graduated from Med school.
At 24 I started residency.
And at 27 I started my fellowship in Hematology/Oncology.
In Med school the boys would often talk about how there should be a quota to restrict the number of female Med students in government colleges even though my university had a near 50/50 split. The underlying supposition was always that women were the outsiders, disrupting a naturally male environment. Never mind that women regularly outperformed boys in FSC examinations and Med school exams, the fact that society forces women to quit medicine to get married was always seen as the woman’s fault and is largely cited as the reason for a shortage of trained doctors in Pakistan.
You can argue for days with men in medicine in Pakistan, the end will always be their voices growing louder, their demeanour angrier and their belief that women should be restricted stronger.
In my clinical years of Med school, equal numbers of boys and girls wished to pursue surgery. I remember one of my friends would spend all her free time in the Operation Theatre and the boys in our group often ridiculed her, often saying that they’ll talk to her in 10 years when she was in family practice because that’s where all girls end up, with kids, a husband, and a part time job. She is now a Gastroenterology fellow at one of America’s best universities.
But almost half of all my patient encounters started with, ‘Oh I thought you were a student’ or ‘Yes but when will I see the doctor’ or ‘Honey the nurse is here’.
Encephalopathic male patients are perhaps the hardest because you cannot hold it against them if they refuse to believe you’re a doctor. On one of my night floats as a senior resident my patient was so adamant that I could not be a doctor I had to ask a male nurse to talk to him and pretend to be a doctor so he would calm down. Just last week my patient told me he thought I had stolen a doctors badge and was a nurse playing pretend. After 11 years of training, I am still seen as a pretender and that is the reality for most women physicians.
When applying for fellowship, you’re asked questions that are too personal for comfort and you wonder if your male colleagues face the same problem.
As your twenties pass your colleagues start seeing you less as a person and more as a quickly ripening banana forgotten in the fridge and at a high risk of going bad. It’s such a common question asked of female trainees, often used to discourage us from pursuing further training or competitive fellowships. Yes, you’re smart but your uterus is more important. These small hints keep reminding us that we represent half of all Med students but we are still the outsiders.
Therefore, even after 11 years of medical training, I still find myself questioning my place in my profession. A profession I have been married to since I was 3 and first asked what I wanted to be when I grow up. A profession I have left my country for and a profession I have chosen over my husband.
As a woman, my message to you is, the next time you see a female physician, try to not ask about her uterus or her ring finger or her cooking skills. And if you have female trainees lift them up and try to understand that they are fighting battles on a hundred invisible fronts.
Laila Babar is a physician currently completing her training in Hematology and Oncology at University of Iowa and is an avid reader who dreams of a better world for women. Follow her on Instagram at @lailababar.