“Some reports have come in that you are unapproachable”
“Excuse me” I said stone faced while my mind began racing and searching memory banks and files for any instance where I could have been accused of being rude, unapproachable, or unprofessional. No specifics were given but it was conveyed that there was a mass feeling of unapproachability by several of the healthcare team.
Now there are several ways that I could have reacted. I could have acted indignant and had an attitude. However thus would have perpetuated the nonspecific accusations. I could have argued intelligently by pointing out that without specific examples what was the reason for even having this conversation. I could have asked for a meeting with my accusers to gain more insight. But since I was “supposed to be unapproachable” I am not sure how productive that would have been either. I could have broken down and cried, but this was not a safe space in which to be vulnerable. So instead, I sat in the chair, feet firmly planted on the floor, and listened intently. I feverishly made mental notes of the nonspecific reports and generalities lobbed at me.
After the conclusion of my “impromptu” feedback session, I began observing how my colleagues interacted with other members of our healthcare team. Personally, I did not see any difference in their interactions, but maybe I was looking at it though rose colored glasses. Next I sought advice from my mentor, another female physician, who was needless to say surprised at the feedback that I had received. In an effort to help, she stated she would observe me to see what she thought. She followed up with me a few weeks later and said she did not see anything wrong in my interactions. So where was this perception coming from?
Talking with several of my other females physicians, some of whom have had the same feedback in various forms, a pattern began to emerge. Each of us are strong and opinionated women with very vibrant personalities and styles. Those who reported issues with our approachability were members of our teams tasked with receiving and following orders from us. Those we were working with in a collegial atmosphere did not seem to find our interactions to actually be collegial. One of my fellow sister doctors made a poignant observation
“We have all seen male physicians at our jobs speak inappropriately and yell at members of our teams and nothing happens to them. If we were men, there would be no discussion.”
This statement really shed light on the heart of the issue. Inherently there is a double standard in how women are expected to provide professional constructive criticism to those who work with them but are tasked with taking instruction from them. Frank and honest feedback from a male physician is followed and received without question; however the same instructions from a female physician in the same frank and honest manner…well let’s just say it leads to reports of unapproachability, complaints of being unreasonable, or even stubborn.
As a female physician I am expected not only to be professional but also demure in all interactions that address correction, feedback, and instructions. In the face of ineptitude I am expected to simply grin and bear it. Add being a woman who is also a minority and the expectations exponentially increase to overcome the angry black woman stigma. I embarrassingly will admit that I initially tried to comply; however, to those that know me the effort came across as comical, false, and forced. More importantly, it left me with a sour taste in my mouth—worse than severe GERD. Inauthenticity is not my handle—imperfection is. Therefore I traded the inauthentic facade and embraced that in my imperfection not everyone will like me or appreciate my role. I can’t change the perceptions of others and I won’t compromise on who I am to make others feel more comfortable with their double standards and expectations.
Kharia J. Holmes, MD is a mother, daughter, sister, friend, and internal medicine physician who lives in Maryland. She enjoys making patients and others laugh because laughter is truly the best medicine. Her ImPerfect Life and Shenanigans can be caught on Instagram @TheImPerfectMD and her thoughts, fashion, and life story can be read on her blog www.TheImPerfectMD.com