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Medicine’s “Ugly Misogyny”: Why Is A Man A Doctor, And A Woman A Nurse?

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“Call the doctor, please!”, screamed a patient admitted in ward number 26. A young lady with a stethoscope whirled around her neck looked at the patient in anguish. The question was addressed to her. But why this anguish on her face? What wrong did the patient ask? What set the unusual chord was that she herself as a doctor was taking care of this patient for the last 8 hours trying every bit of her skills to give him solace.

In ward number 28, a patient attendant asked a junior doctor to refill the saline bottle for her patient. The doctor immediately asked her to ask the nurse for the same. Even before the young doctor could finish, the attendant hurriedly rushed to a middle-aged woman wearing a long-sleeved apron and a stethoscope around her neck and asked, “oh sister, kindly change the saline.”

Image of two nurses on duty in a coronavirus ward
Representational image.

But the middle-aged lady brushed aside her request and thrust her way into the ward only to be wished by the junior doctor in the ward “good evening ma’am”. “She is the professor coming for rounds,” whispered a ward boy staring angrily at the attendant who misjudged her.

These were not just cooked up mythical stories but an everyday scene encountered by a thousand female doctors and nurses across the length and breadth of the country. Even after dedicating their whole life to prove their ability and ripping open the age-old stereotypes of the society, they encounter such ignorance and misjudgement of the masses day in and day out for whom any female staff in a hospital at best could only be a nurse and the tag of a “doctor” is a badge only a male can fathom. As if a woman is only born to pay a second fiddle role to a man.

On Gender Roles And Caregiving

The field of medicine however revered was always a pandora’s box of misogynism rarely discussed in public. The stereotypical gender roles of the society where females are equated with homemaking and child upbringing and as caregivers have always been duly reflected into the field of medicine too. The profession of nursing, which loosely becomes synonymous with caregiving, has been attributed to the service of a woman who needs to work under the discretion and order of a doctor, a decision-maker -a job from ancient days preferably reserved for man.

This differential thrust of decision making on the shoulders of a man and caregiving and nursing on the shoulders of women is so much ingrained into the field of medicine that it has not just become common knowledge to the masses but a normal phenomenon even to the insiders.

This is not to belittle the devotion, sacrifice and hardwork in the field of nursing or for that matter any healthcare worker. It is just to demystify and decorticate the role plays from their gender. Isn’t it astonishing to watch patients call even the juniormost doctor in the room as “doctor sir” while his senior teacher-doctor as a nurse? Is that the reward a female doctor gets after so much sacrifice and hard work?

This is not to suggest any kind of superiority to the term “doctor” in lieu of “nurse” but only to question the conditioning of the masses where a female could only be a nurse and not a doctor.

Even the epithets and adjuncts used by the masses for male and female health care workers have their own story to tell. While even a junior medical student or even a ward boy is addressed as “sir”, the nurses or the female medics are always invariably addressed as “didi “. But not once does “dada” come to their mind as a salutation for a male medico. This may seem very innocuous but carries the belief that the act of nursing or the service of caring by a female professional is a just a divine duty naturally enshrined to their gender which even if respected need not be equated to that of the service of a male caregiver.

But is it only the rustic folks who harbour such biased thinking? Is the field of medicine by itself very innocuous and rosy? The answer is simply negative. Even in the hallowed arenas of medicine, there is an ugly misogyny and biased conditioning and this kind by the highly educated medical professionals themselves. It is thus common knowledge in the field of medicine that there reside some arenas like surgical branches which are regarded as “male” branches and some others like “gynaecology and paediatrics” which are regarded as female domains.

Representational image.

“Oh, You’re Not Physically As Capable”

And it’s not completely untrue that in these male branches, the entry of a female dissenter is mostly discouraged even if not looked down upon. The justification provided lies in the argument of “physical strength”. This begs us a question that why is there no physical fitness examination before joining those courses which need to be undergone by both the sexes alike?

How on earth would someone explain the entry of a thin lean male candidate to the branch of orthopaedics but not a healthy fit female candidate? Even in a decade where instrumentation and technology have zeroed down upon physical strength, these justifications seem just amusing holding little water.

The argument regarding the physical fitness needed for carrying out an orthopaedic procedure is just an excuse to safeguard and protect the “masochistic” image of these surgical branches. A surgeon colloquially is seen as more commanding and decisive than their non-surgical counterparts who may be regarded as more calm and gentle or feminine. It’s this aura of “masochism” in these branches which makes them look down upon a non-conformists’ induction.

Even if any female aspirant challenges this code of gender by utter shin of courage, she may risk the possibility of being grilled through a more rigorous scrutiny and comb searching than her co-professionals only to get herself the feeling of being in the wrong shoes and unwanted. In an atmosphere where one truly craves for a role model to look up to, who may share the same hurdles but finds it lacking due to the paucity, a little more empathy from colleagues and seniors could really instil confidence in them. But strangely, instead of that, they are often penalised in different forms for daring to enter a male bastion.

The “Natural Choice” For “Female” Surgeons

But then there are the likes of paediatrics and gynaecology where the females are regarded as the natural choice. Why? Because, by choosing these domains, they fit their society mandated gender roles i.e- care for the child and mother. Remember the midwives -who for long would be the lifeline of India’s child delivery system who invariably would be women as the men were not allowed even to break the sanctity of someone’s “private” female companion by assisting in their childbirth.

And thus even today, the modern-day “gynaecology and obstetrics” take a clue from this age-old misogynistic conditioning of the society and consider females as their natural choice. On the one hand, the domain itself encourages females as their natural choice and on the other, the females themselves imbibe upon themselves this “natural choice theory” and truly believe the domain would be better suited to them than any male-dominated subject in terms of the treatment they would get and the plethora of role models they would get in these domains on whom they may mould themselves.

Even in branches that have a more balanced approach, there lies a subtle misogynism wrapped inside. It may be sad but true that in a deeply misogynistic society like ours, even today a senior doctor has to ensure the morning cup of bed tea to her husband before she can come for work. This is apart from the daily household chores she is expected to perform. And in today’s competitive world, many of these females often fall short of their male counterparts in terms of academic achievements and professional accolades because it is invariably only the females who are expected to sacrifice their careers or a part of it for the betterment of their family.

But ironically, even this trailing of academic achievements by these female doctors/teachers are often used to prove their unsuccessfulness and unworthiness in their professional arenas. And then when a new female entrant enters such a professional arena, searching for her own role model, these examples are shown to them which makes them believe the unworthiness of their own role models which sometimes may let them question their own capability and worthiness.

The whole world is trying to change the dynamics challenging the age-old gender roles. Even the armed forces have for long shielded their fortress from women power as the forces try to project themselves as a force where physical power and valour are paramount and sacrosanct and which according to them are naturally inscribed only in a man. They think that the protection of women equates to preserving the country’s honour which only a man can perform. Amidst all this, there lies another profession that is just the polar opposite. It is the domain of nursing where caregiving is invariably associated with the female sex.

Representational image.

Male Nurses? But Women Do Caregiving

Although there’s a gradual increase in female representation in the profession of medicine, leaving behind some specialities of medicine, the astonishing lower number of male nurses and institutes for recruiting and training them is very alarming.

Just as in the case of armed forces, society thinks that women should only be for some technical or ground-level jobs providing help to male combatants. The same thinking goes on into the field of medicine too where the notion is that although females could be accepted to be doctors, however reluctantly it may be, a man cannot take to the profession of nursing which is traditionally a role designed for women.

Thus, there are only a few centres in the country which recruits men to be part of the domain of nursing and thus it is very rare to see male nurses working shoulder to shoulder with their female colleagues in providing public healthcare care. Until the gender dynamics and the associated notions don’t change, things won’t change.

Apart from this obnoxious gender-biased recruitment criteria, there is also a reminiscent of the victorian age morality used officially in the nursing profession. In the training and grooming sessions of young nurses in regards to attitude and dressing, the age-old Victorian-era morality and ethics are taught and expected from a student. Often scientific arguments regarding sterility and infection control are invoked to defend their gender-biased victorian morality and ethics but what amuses a sane mind is the non-application of the same standard of sterility morality and dressing sense for doctors who too have the same patient interaction.

The reason for this is simple. Being a female-dominated profession, it’s easy to invoke the victorian morality of womanhood for an ideal woman just as the armed forces use similar notions of masculinity to groom ideal men. Until their gender composition is disturbed and altered, the invocation of ideas of ideal women or ideal men is not going to end even in the coming days.

As these issues mostly confine to some elitist and respectable sections of society, these are rarely being discussed in public but until the elites and the privileged shed off their misogyny and creates substantial examples for the masses to ponder and follow and take a clue from, gender sensitisation and awareness among masses would only be a slogan or an op-ed at its best.

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