A few years ago, I attended a cataract surgery conference in Florida. This conference was created by some of the top cataract surgeons in the country and marketed as “cutting edge.”
As usual in these conferences, the female to male percentage was about 30-70%. To say the room was mostly filled with older white men would be fair, and it certainly wasn’t something I noticed anymore, after years of attending conferences of this sort.
The lead speaker was a well-respected surgeon, and a congenial man who I’ve spoken to occasionally via round table discussions. I thought him to be at worst, too high on himself, but at best, devoted to sharing what he had learned with his fellow surgeons.
Then, in his final “reveille” PowerPoint presentation, speaking to a packed audience on the final and most anticipated day, he put up a picture of a woman’s well-endowed cleavage, bursting out of a low-cut shirt. Just cleavage—no face attached.
He used his laser pointer to point at the faceless woman’s cleavage and joked “these were probably implants but not, of course, the type of implants we are talking about in cataract surgery.”
I thought I was hallucinating from lack of sleep. But the gasps I heard made it clear I was awake. I looked around to find several female doctor’s mouths drop open. Unfortunately, I also saw several male doctors giggle, clearly getting a kick out of it.
How completely unprofessional, right? Yet what did I see – most of the men seemed ok with it – even appreciated levity in the serious discussion. Sure, a boring lecture series could always use some levity – why not? Well, NOT if that levity is at the expense of the female physicians in the room.
How did it make me feel? Lesser than, cheap, like I didn’t belong there in this “men’s room” of old hags. Like it was clear they really didn’t want us there and were making it clearer that we “females” were not the same as them “males.”
I almost stood up and raised my hand. My blood was boiling over. I almost walked up to the imposing podium and called him out on his revolting. But I didn’t.
I have few regrets at this point in life – the one I think of consistently is my failure to stand up and say something that day. I’m also disappointed in the other doctors, both male and female, who didn’t speak up either.
I think the main reason we didn’t was fear – FEAR of not having others back us up – FEAR of sounding like “crazy liberals” – FEAR of “burning bridges,” or possibly not making the “right connections,” that even in medicine become important at one point or another in one’s career.
Don’t piss off the establishment, right?
If someone had said something that day in Florida, maybe this well-respected surgeon wouldn’t have gone on to use the same slide again on another day in another state.
I tell my daughter that she can be ANYTHING she wants – and I truly believe it. Astronaut, President, ANYTHING. But what I can’t say with a true heart is that when she gets there she won’t have a whole set of problems that her male counterparts don’t.
I want to tell her about these potential problems so she will never regret not speaking up.
Personally, writing this is a way to redeem myself of the guilt I feel for not having a discussion with the “hilarious” surgeon afterwards.
So to my fellow women: whether you’re a doctor, reporter, teacher, bus driver, or stay at home mom:
BE BOLD, BE BRAVE, STAND UP FOR YOURSELVES. DON’T BE AFRAID TO FIND OTHER WOMEN AROUND YOU TO FIND SUPPORT. OUR STRENGTH WILL ALWAYS BE IN NUMBERS.
Why? We don’t work our butts off holding down jobs AND families just to be made jokes of in front of our peers. We don’t constantly strive to move through the glass ceilings and be the best wives and mothers we can be just to be reduced to cleavage up on a screen.
If I had said something, I know other doctors would have joined me.
Someone always has to be the first. I wish it had been me.
Remember friends, HOPE is the other side of FEAR!