Oh, no. I’m at the loser table.
That’s what I thought as I walked into the large room for our summer intern lunch. I sat at my assigned table with the other female bioengineering summer interns and the one female manager, while looking around enviously as the male interns with whom I worked sat elsewhere with the men. Every woman who works in a male-dominated field wants to sit at the table with the highest level leadership, and we know, just as everybody else does, that that table is full of men. If we’re lucky enough and good enough, we aspire to be the one woman sitting with them.
I don’t believe that the decision was malicious. I’m sure the company was trying its best to encourage and mentor women in engineering by pairing them with their female managers. But I’m not sure the female manager at our table didn’t have the same thought I did. I’m sure she had worked very hard to climb the corporate ladder, and here she was, at this event, reminded that the main way she was seen by her colleagues and the company was as a woman.
During my pulmonary/critical-care fellowship, a dean of a prominent medical school came to visit and lecture. The senior faculty member who had invited her scheduled time for her to meet us, the fellows and the junior faculty. Many of those who came were women. The dean, a very accomplished researcher, physician and administrator, sat at the conference table with us and asked us questions about our research. We stumbled uncomfortably for a while until one of the female junior attendings said, “I think we all have different research interests, but what I was really hoping to ask you about today was how you managed your work-life balance.”
Suddenly, we were full of questions – questions about how her career developed, how she had managed to raise her sons, who had taken care of them when they were little, how she picked her jobs and advanced. She was thoughtful in her answers and informative. She had had great mentorship, a wonderful network of scientists to collaborate with. She even left us with an inspiring statement, ”If you work hard in clinical medicine, you can help the people you see. But if you succeed in research, you can change medicine for a generation of patients.”
I walked out elated, and accompanied her down the hall to the elevators, where the senior attending was waiting. On the way, I had more questions – what did her husband do for a living? (She was divorced.) Was it hard to take care of everything herself? (He wasn’t much help in those departments even when he was around.)
“How did it go?” my attending asked her.
“I tried to find out about their research,” the Dean answered, “but they wanted to talk about the mommy questions.” She sounded resigned and disappointed. I suddenly realized that our meeting, this mentorship session, in some ways exemplified the sexism she still faces, even at her high pinnacle of success. That she worked very hard to achieve what few have in clinical medicine, in basic science and research, in administration, and in running a medical school, but in the end, all these accomplishments are viewed through the narrow lens of, “Wow, you’re a woman! How did you do that?’
Image source: National Cancer institute via Wikimedia Commons.