In my recent story for Stanford Medicine magazine on the transformational changes in surgery, I reported that “women were once personae non gratae in the operating room.” An alumna of the medical school, Judith Murphy, MD, took me to task for my choice of words, for as she points out, women have long been the backbone of the OR.
“In fact, for decades, women outnumbered men in the OR – circulating nurse, scrub nurse, overseeing nurse, etc.,” she wrote to me. “So it is not that there were no women in the OR, but there were no women surgeons. No Women Who Count, although everyone knows these nurses are essential to successful surgery.”
When she was a medical student at Stanford in the early 1970s, she says female students and faculty had to use bathrooms and lockers that were labeled “Nurses,” whereas the men’s room was labeled, “Doctors.”
“We all laughed about it, but it did reflect the unconscious assumptions that your language still perpetuates, all these years later and after so much progress,” she shared with me. “The women who came after us were a bit more empowered and did not think it was funny; they complained, and the doors were changed to Men and Women.”
Murphy, a practicing pediatrician in Palo Alto for decades, says she might not have made note of the issue were it not for a recent encounter with a male acquaintance who, on learning she was connected to Stanford Hospital, said, “I never knew you were a nurse.”
“When he said that, I thought, ‘Darn, I can’t believe this is still happening.’ I gave him my usual response: ‘I have great respect for nurses and could never have done as good a job without them, but in fact, I’m a doctor,’” said Murphy, who is now retired.
“The power of the cultural unconscious assumption remains strong, even here where we have come so far,” she wrote. “This has been happening to me occasionally for 40 years, less so lately. I had hoped it would become archaic.”
Murphy says her response may have been a bit testier than in the past. But she can be excused, for it is always good to be reminded of our unconscious biases about the role of women in health care, reflected both in our language and behavior.
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