This Physician’s Open Letter To Young Female Doctors Reveals The Casual Sexism Many Female Professionals Face

Gendered double standards are present in almost every professional field. Simply put, sexism doesn’t care if you’re at school, at home, on the street, or at work. It will show up, sometimes subtly, with the reminder that regardless of what your professional title may be, the word “woman” will always come before it. This kind of casual sexism is clear in a recent open letter from a physician to fellow female doctors, detailing the kind of discriminatory comments she’s faced in her career and what she wishes she could tell her younger self.

The letter was written by Suzanne Koven, a physician of more than 30 years, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine. After helping in an orientation session in which medical interns were asked to write letters to their future selves, Koven decided to pen a letter of her own. “When I started my internship 30 years ago,” Koven states in the introduction to her letter, “I wasn’t invited to share my hopes and anxieties in a letter — or anywhere else, for that matter.” The disparity among genders was certainly more present decades ago than it is today, as Koven states she was pleased to see that women comprised more than half of this particular intern class. However, there are still significantly more male doctors than female in the United States and gender-based discrimination, both subtle and less so, is more common than many might realize.

As the students wrote their letters, Koven composed her own, writing the things she wanted to tell this upcoming class of medical professionals as well as what she wishes she’d known when she was just starting out her career.

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Her letter begins with bit of reassurance:

“I know you are excited and also apprehensive. These feelings are not unwarranted. The hours you will work, the body of knowledge you must master, and the responsibility you will bear for people’s lives and well-being are daunting. I’d be worried if you weren’t at least a little worried.”

She goes on to talk about the specific challenges that many young female professionals face, like when she was told “no self-respecting man would go to a lady urologist.” Koven also writes about the time she asked about a hospital’s policy on maternity leave and “was told that it was a great idea and I should draft one.”

The statistics she mentions specific to sexism in the medical field mirror the kind of sexism many working women face: female physicians earn significantly less than male physicians, women are still widely underrepresented in positions of leadership, and sexual harassment is often commonplace.

Overall, roughly one in three women have been sexually harassed at work, according to a recent study. While illegal per Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, workplace sexual harassment is often met with little or no consequence. This is in part because sexual violence at work goes widely unreported. The kinds of sexism women face at work, both overt and more discreet, don’t necessarily go away with experience. Koven says even after 30 years, she is still privy to casual sexism:

“Decades into practice, when I call in a prescription, some pharmacists still ask for the name of the doctor I’m calling for.”
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Maybe the most moving part of the piece is when Koven eloquently describes the inner turmoil many of us, of every gender, experience: the feeling that we’re a fraud.

She writes:

“There’s also a more insidious obstacle that you’ll have to contend with — one that resides in your own head. In fact, one of the greatest hurdles you confront may be one largely of your own making. At least that has been the case for me. You see, I’ve been haunted at every step of my career by the fear that I am a fraud.”

As Koven tells Upworthy, "What's fascinating is that though the piece is a 'Letter to a Young Female Physician,' it seems to have spoken to older physicians, male physicians, and even many non-physicians — and all around the world." The pressures and assumptions placed on us by society are felt by everyone. For women, this often compounds with some internalized sexism, but bouts of imposter syndrome can be felt by anyone.

Few of us, if any, feel completely sure of ourselves all of the time. The feeling that you’re faking it is so, so human, and perhaps that’s why this letter has resonated with so many. It speaks to all of us while reminding us what is real and special about each of us.

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Whenever you need a little reassurance, read Koven’s full letter. Let her well-written words guide you:

“My dear young colleague, you are not a fraud. You are a flawed and unique human being, with excellent training and an admirable sense of purpose. Your training and sense of purpose will serve you well. Your humanity will serve your patients even better.”

On behalf of our future, former, and current selves: Thanks, Dr. Koven.