“We support, we amplify, we promote.”
Last week I traveled to New York for a conference. I was nervous, as I didn’t actually really know anyone going, and I was leaving my husband and toddler behind to travel across the country, and I am 25 weeks pregnant.
However, I was still more excited than I have been about ANY conference ever. It was hosted by the same women who broadcast the FemInEm podcast that I have been listening to for about a year. This podcast, which advertises itself as ‘discussing all things fem, a little bit of EM and everything in between,’ has opened my eyes in more ways than one. If I am totally honest, it has taught me a lot about being a female physician, recognizing the misogyny that exists, highlighting that we as individuals are not alone, and that every voice matters.
Soon after I started listening, I decided not only that I needed to write a blog, but that my perspective was important. I realized that my experiences mattered and they might actually help others get through their own challenges. Fast forward 9 months—I have successfully launched my blog, continue to find inspiration from FemInEm, and I am excitedly jumping on a plane to have a ‘live’ experience with a group of women whom I admire deeply.
The conference is called FIX, and is it abbreviation for the FemInEm Idea Exchange (FIX18) Conference. As I suspected, it wasn’t just a conference. In actuality, it was two days of women (and some men) sharing honest, horrific, informative and touching stories. Stories about living with disabilities, finding voices in advocacy, personal tragedies, and growing up with disadvantages.
Each speaker, each story had its own flavor of humanity, and they included the most honest and raw experiences I have seen shared on a large stage. The presenters were incredibly diverse—all ethnicities, male and female (mostly female), trainees and attendings, EM trained and not, tall and short, gay and straight. Each person’s uniqueness was highlighted, and I appreciated that our differences were celebrated, recognizing that in order for us to be better doctors, we need to embrace and honor these differences.
If I could, I would have bottled up each presentation to re-examine, listen to and quote later, because each story was inspiring, poignant, and authentic. Each person taught me something new and as a group we were shown that we are more resilient than we realize, more innovative than we admit, and that we each have potential to be great, and likely already are.
Despite my fears, the audience proved to be just as friendly and accepting as the presenters, and I networked, I made friends, I shared my own stories, and I basked in the love of 750 women.
I met wonderful, impressive women from all over the country who in our side conversations shared their personal stories of infertility, depression, divorce and sexual harassment. Maybe it was the atmosphere, maybe the conference just brought these kinds of people, but I felt deeply connected to the women all around me, and was so proud to be one of them.
The official/unofficial mascot of FemInEM is the otter. The otter was chosen because female otters are smart and resilient and they work together in groups to form ‘rafts.’ These rafts are created by the female otters linking paws and it is a way for them to float together so no one drifts away. They take care of one another that way, and there is always room for more on the edge of the raft.
In thinking how this applies to us as humans, it reminds me that we have an unending capacity to support one another, and that we should be like the otter, willing to take others along on our ‘raft,’ making sure no one floats away.
My experience made me realize that I needed to further the discussion of how women support one another. Not only have I become passionate about this, but I also have been having a lot of discussions after my most recent post, and I’m afraid that maybe I didn’t do a good enough job describing what it means to actually put this idea into action. It’s almost as though it is such a foreign concept to some, that not everyone fully received the point I was trying to make.
Since I just finished an experience that embodies this idea of support, it is a wonderful opportunity to provide some additional assistance to help others understand how to put this type of support into action.
First, I know that we are not conditioned or trained to support each other. We learn to do the exact opposite, so it can be extremely hard to change our whole way of ‘being,’ which includes doing an entire re-wiring of our brains around how we respond to the women in our lives. Here are a few more tips to help us all put this idea of actually supporting our female colleagues into practice.
1. Become a mentor—find female students, trainees, junior attendings and befriend them. Talk to them, tell them what you know, and tell them it’s ok to be imperfect. Boundaries are important, as no one else will make them for us. We need to tell these women that it’s ok to take time off, it’s ok to put your family first, and it sure is ok to take care of yourself. We all love our jobs, but at the end of the day it is still just a job. A job that can be incredibly rewarding, but also incredibly draining. I feel like in medicine we need this reminder.
2. Befriend your female colleagues and then support the SHIT out of them. Are they getting promoted? Encourage them, offer to write a letter, congratulate them on this milestone. Is a woman in your department doing something you find admirable? Are they volunteering with an organization you care about, or have they been asked to be a leader in an area of the hospital you find exciting? Tell them! Then tell others so they can benefit from knowing you REALLY think what they are doing is cool. One of my friends recently was asked to be an associate program director for the residency. To be honest, initially I was a bit envious, but quickly I allowed myself to transcend that feeling to being truly excited for her and the opportunities she was being given by this promotion. I chose to see her new leadership role as being profoundly important for all the people she was going to be able to influence and help by her role. I transcended into being not only proud for HER, but proud to be her friend as she entered this new role. Then I tried my best to celebrate her accomplishment.
3. Choose to see each and EVERY women as a sister instead of an enemy. Maybe you have a new colleague who may be doing work that is similar to yours? Don’t ignore her and hope she won’t be supported in her endeavors, but make a new friend, figure out how to collaborate. Find out how you can work together to make your voices louder. Maybe there is a trainee who you are having a hard time connecting with, maybe she is operating from, ‘I know it all, you don’t need to teach me anything.’ Try to see if you can understand where she is coming from and try to connect. A lot of time in these situations, students have a lot of fear of being wrong, of being perceived as ‘not knowing,’ so they are slow to reveal their vulnerabilities, and where they might need some help. Try to be non-judgmental and provide a safe place for her to learn. Remember my post on shame and the idea of ‘psychological safety?’ When we provide this environment, our trainees can feel much more comfortable in letting us know where they are struggling. When vulnerability has a place to enter, compassion naturally follows.
4. Take ourselves out of the equation. Are you angry by another woman’s actions? Most of the time, people don’t do things specifically to upset another person. They do it out of feeling ‘left out,’ feeling marginalized or ‘not enough.’ If you are finding yourself upset by another woman, before you get angry and say something hurtful, put yourself in her shoes. Try to understand why she may have done or said what she did. Then, if you can, forgive her and move on. It doesn’t help us to be angry at one another, anger is divisive and can often be counter-productive, especially if it results in gossiping and back-stabbing.
5. See every encounter and every relationship as an opportunity to support someone. Is there a woman who did something great (like was a BOSS at work, or treated a family really awesomely), send an email to your supervisor and cc your colleague. Is there a woman struggling with being a new mom, wife, leader? Encourage them, offer to meet for coffee to share how you handled something. Connect. Is there a woman who wants to do something different, like try a leadership position or volunteer activity. Encourage her, tell her you admire her for her passions, and then tell those in leadership positions how appropriate you think she is for the job. There are SO many ways to support one other.
6. For all the men out there…Find a way for you to embody the #HeforShe movement. Please don’t blatantly deny the existence of the gender pay gap. It exists, there is research. Instead, find a way to have your department engage in pay transparency. Understand that you have an advantage because of your gender. Figure out a way to promote the work of one of your female colleagues. Try to be a mentor, a cheerleader and an advocate for women in any way you can. Understand that we need you too.
I challenge my sisters to spend a week NOT criticizing your female colleagues or trainees. Instead, see it as a way to support them, counsel them, encourage them, connect with them. I promise your whole outlook will change, and you will develop more friendly interactions and relationships. I also believe you will see how our implicit biases cause us to be more critical than we should be. We are unnecessarily and inordinately hard on each other, but we don’t need to be.
Lastly, follow FemInEm. Dara Kass and Jenny Beck-Esmay put on the best conference I have ever been to, and they also have a fantastic podcast on iTunes. Then when you like what you hear, plan to come to FIX19, I promise you won’t regret it, and you will begin to build your own ‘raft of bitches.’