Unlike was the case several decades ago, and as I mentioned just yesterday, female physicians are no longer a rarity. So why do some people still use the pronoun “he” when talking about doctors? That’s the question Danielle Ofri, MD, posed on Well today. Telling the story of a class of college freshmen who read one of Ofri’s essays and erroneously assumed she was a man – in part because she had an MD after her name – Ofri writes:
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.
She goes on to describe how things have changed since that time: About half of medical students these days are women, and her children (like my own) have been treated primarily by female doctors. The fact that people in their late teens would equate “physician” with “man,” she writes, was difficult for her to believe. Except, she writes:
…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…