Equality in thought and deed?

Last week I got to go to the Royal Society’s annual “Diversity” event.  I admit that I went into this meeting with a certain amount of cynicism (just for a change).  Visible differences are much easier to address than hidden ones.  Much of the focus was (predictably) on promoting ethnic and gender diversity.  I’m not usually classed as an ethnic minority (half Welsh and half Latina – see what I mean about visible differences?)

I am however a woman: an easily recognised minority in science, especially in the higher rungs.  But I’m not aware of having experienced any gender discrimination in my science career.  I’m lucky: I work in a research field that is largely dominated by female researchers; my research group is almost entirely female.  I’ve never felt that it’s an issue.

This is very different to my experiences in the NHS.  Again, I work in a field that has a slightly higher number of female trainees than others, but the expectations of me as a woman are completely different.

“When are you getting married?” might seem innocuous, but it reinforces the message that I’m expected to see this as a goal in my life.  It’s often followed by “when are you having a baby?”.  It’s not “if” but “when” – again, as though this is something that I should be doing.  

This is just social chat amongst peers.  Much more damaging are the statemetns by my seniors:

“you’ll never be any good as a paediatrician until you’re a mother” still haunts me.

Being told that “doing a PhD is not an acceptable reason to work part-time; you should be raising a family” was easier to shrug off – at least it was an open acknowledgement of something rarely acknowledged: regardless how many other aspects to your life, a woman is seen primarily as a potential mate and mother.  Not a Professor or a Clinical director or a Chief Exec.

Universities have put a huge amount of working into ensuring “family friendly” working environments; funding bodies emphasise their family leave allowances; institutions have diversity officers… What about the NHS?

If we’re going to recruit the best people to research, then we need to make sure that these kind of attitudes aren’t allowed to stifle ambition.  We need to stop defining women as proto-mothers above all else. And we need to focus our attention away from the universitites to the wider environment, including the NHS.

I am not a mother in waiting; I am not an incomplete wife.

I am a PhD candidate and paediatric trainee. I am a baker of breads and cakes.  I am a cat owner (or owned).  I am a pole dancer and occasional aerial hooper. 

Define me by the thoughts in my mind and the works of my hands and my body; not by what my colleagues think I should be doing with my womb.


One thought on “Equality in thought and deed?

  1. I’m sad to say that in my experience most of these comments come from women. My male colleagues don’t seem to see my reproductive status as their business! Interestingly, in a male dominated field, it has been quite rare that I have heard such comments. Perhaps you get it more BECAUSE there are more women around? And because working with children people assume that you “like children” and want your own?

    I think it goes both ways. We need to stop making assumptions about women. But women who do want children need to avoid undermining others (I’ve seen women with children who remain fully committed to their careers, and others who seem to become completely uninterested, inflexible and unhelpful – the latter cause prejudice against the former. Fine, reduce your hours when you have children, if that is what suits you – but don’t assume it suits everyone, don’t suggest that women with children who work full time don’t care about their children, etc).

    The comment about not being a good paediatrician until you are a mother is despicable. Suppose you are the mother of a bright, capable child, who never has major illnesses; you have lots of support at home, you don’t get postnatal depression. How does that help you treat a child born with major disabilities to parents who are on the bread line and have no support? Perhaps there is even more danger of misunderstanding, as you might assume you have a greater degree of knowledge than someone who was not a parent.

    And what if you wanted children and couldn’t, if you had some hidden health problem that meant you never would – how cruel would such comments be then?

    Basically i think we should stop interfering in our colleagues personal lives (unless they come to us for support in a crisis) – as long as you do your work well, whether you are male or female, it shouldn’t matter if you have children, what your hobbies are, if you have a spouse, whether you are gay, etc.

    (On an aside – I don’t know if you find this in adolescent clinics – I find that doctors are OBSESSED by pregnancy in women with health problems. Of course there should be opportunity to discuss the topic, but even when the woman says she doesn’t want children they don’t seem to believe her……… it is as though it must be a woman’s only ambition in life. They don’t seem to apply it to colleagues though, as a doctor they don’t seem to expect the same of me.)

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