The Optimized Doctor

‘We don’t want to be an inspiration’


 

Over 2.5 million people have fled the ghastly war in Ukraine for safety. But, not everyone is trying to leave. Shockingly, hundreds of thousands are actually flocking toward the danger in Ukraine right now. Many of them are women.

I was commuting to work when I first heard this story on a podcast. In astonishing numbers, women have chosen to return to or stay in Ukraine because they’re needed to fight and to protect their families. My reaction, like yours, was to be inspired. What amazing courage! Twitter and Instagram will swell with images of their balaclava masked faces standing in the breach once more. Like the women in medicine who armed themselves with surgical masks and face shields and babies on their backs to join the fight against COVID-19. They will be poster girls, blue sleeves rolled up and red polka dotted bandanas covering their hair.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

But that’s not what they want. “We don’t want to be an inspiration,” said one fearless Ukrainian fighter in the story, “we want to be alive.”

At the time of this writing as we celebrate the brilliant accomplishments of women on March 8, International Women’s Day, I wonder if we don’t have it slightly wrong.

Although acknowledgment is appreciated, the women I work alongside don’t need me to be inspired by them. They need me to stand with them, to help them. There has been extensive reporting on the disproportionate burden that women have borne though the pandemic: lost income, lost status, lost jobs. The “she-session” it’s been called, refers to the million women who have not rejoined the workforce since COVID-19. This is especially acute for us in medicine where women are significantly more likely than are men to report not working full time, or not working at all.

The truth is that even in 2022, the burdens of family life are still not borne equally. Bias against mothers in particular can be insidious. Take academia, where there is little sympathy for not publishing on schedule. Perhaps there are unexplained gaps, but where exactly on a CV does one put “recurrent pregnancy loss?” Do you know how many clinics or ORs a woman must cancel to attempt maddeningly unpredictable egg retrievals and embryo transfers? A lot. Not to mention the financial burden of doing so.

During the pandemic, female physicians were more likely to manage child care, schooling, and household duties, compared to male physicians.

And yet (perhaps even because of that?) women in medicine make less money. How much? About $80,000 less on average in dermatology. Inspired? Indeed. No thanks. Let’s #BreakTheBias rather.

I’m not a policy expert nor a sociologist. I don’t know what advice might be helpful here. I’d say raising our collective consciousness of the unfairness, highlighting discrepancies, and advocating for equality are good starts. But, International Women’s Day isn’t new. It’s old. Like over a hundred years old (since 1909 to be exact). We don’t just need a better hashtag, we need to do something. Give equity in pay. Offer opportunities for leadership that accommodate the extra duty women might have outside work. Create flexibility in schedules and without the penalty of having to pump at work or leave early to pick up a child. Not to mention all the opportunities we men have to do more of the household work that women currently do.

The gallant women of Ukraine don’t need our approbation. They need our aid and our prayers. Like the women in my department, at my medical center, in my community, they aren’t posing to be made into posters. There’s work to be done and they are flocking toward it right now.

Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at dermnews@mdedge.com.

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