Assuming the Doctor’s a “He”

by Danielle Ofri
New York Times

The letter came from an English professor at a small Midwestern college. His freshman class had been assigned one of my essays, “Merced,” a story about a young woman in the I.C.U. with a mysterious diagnosis. “More than half the students,” the professor wrote, “assumed that you were a man — despite your name. When asked why, many said that your writerly voice was unmistakably masculine: logical, confident, secure, sometimes sarcastic…and, above all, that you are an M.D.”

I found this astounding, especially when I learned that the English class consisted of students in the health sciences and was itself predominantly female. I’d thought all this male/female perception bias about physicians was a relic of the 1950s. Did people really still think that way?

A classic study of preschoolers in 1979 showed that even young children “knew” that doctors were men and nurses were female. If characters were shown in the nonstereotypical fashion, the children would promptly “correct” the picture, reversing the labels to fit their worldview.

But surely we’ve moved beyond these stereotypes in the past three decades, no? Medical schools report that women make up 50 percent of their students, though nursing still remains predominantly female. At faculty meetings of attending physicians in my medical clinic, women handily outnumber men, mirroring the national trend in primary care medicine. Of course, this is not (yet) reflected in the higher academic echelons, nor in the surgical specialties.

Perceptions, however, do lag behind reality, as these freshman English students demonstrated. When polled by their professor, they overwhelmingly considered doctors to be male. Then I wondered about the “writerly voice” that students believed was masculine. I certainly wasn’t trying for a Hemingway effect, but perhaps the story itself really did sound “male.”

The Gender Genie is a Web site that uses an algorithm from Israeli researchers to decide whether a writer of a passage submitted for review is male or female. I submitted the first four pages of “Merced.” Answer: Male Writer. Then I submitted the entire story. Answer: Female Writer. Maybe the college students read only the first few pages. Wouldn’t be the first time, I suppose.

The “feminine” key words that garnered the most weight were: with, if, not, where, be, were. The “masculine” key words were: around, what, more, are, has, who. None of these struck me as particularly gender-specific.

I had to conclude that it was the students’ preconception that “physician” equals “male” that colored their interpretation of this story.

Part of me finds this entirely ridiculous and impossible to believe in this day and age — except that I’ve fallen into the same trap. One of my patients recently saw a pulmonologist at another hospital. “Would you call Dr. Marcus about my X-ray results?” the patient asked.

“Sure,” I replied. “I’ll give him a call this afternoon.”

“She,” my patient gently chided.

Perhaps change simply takes longer than we expect. My own children were born almost two decades after those college freshmen were born. We’ve had three pediatricians over the years, and all were women. In their day care center — associated with the hospital — almost every child’s mother was a doctor.

One day, my daughter came home reporting an amazing discovery. “Jacob’s father is a doctor too,” she exclaimed. “Just like Jacob’s mother!” In her world, it simply had never dawned on her that “doctor” could equal “man.” If that 1979 preschooler study were repeated on her generation, I suspect the results would be different.

In the end, though, I wonder how important it really is. After all, we have multitudes of preconceptions about doctors, writers — all people, in fact — and sex is only one of them.

The English professor, in his letter to me, invited me to speak to his students, and we arranged a conference call. The students were polite, nervously reading their prewritten questions, like “How do you not throw up when you see something gory?” and “How do you know what area of medicine you want to specialize in?”

I was struck more, however, by the students’ questions and misconceptions about writers. For most of the students, a writer seemed to be a disembodied name printed on a book. A book itself was a random physical object that just somehow appeared on the library shelf. They seemed genuinely startled to comprehend that I was a real person, that I’d sweated for years to write my book, that every single word in the chapter they’d read was agonized over, edited, erased, rewritten, revised, that what they were reading was a palpable, breathing incarnation of a human being.

A doctor? Well, they knew how he — or she — got there; they’d watched enough medical shows on TV to know the basics of medical school and residency. But a writer? Writing an actual book? That was something they had no conception of.   (from the New York Times, June 14, 2012)

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Danielle Ofri is the author of three books, including “Medicine in Translation: Journeys with My Patients,” which is about learning the individual stories of patients. She is an Associate Professor of Medicine at New York University School of Medicine and editor-in-chief of the Bellevue Literary Review. She is currently writing a book about the emotional life of doctors. 

 
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