Why women aren’t better than you.

I’m going to leap in at the very start and make this point now. 
Feminists don’t hate men. Our brothers, fathers, sons, friends, colleagues and lovers are men. Our patients are men. When a feminist says, “I am a feminist”, he or she is not saying, “I am a feminist, ergo I loathe the Y-chromosome and routinely burn my underwear”. They are saying: “I believe that men are women should have equal rights”. That’s it; That is, fundamentally what feminism is. Time and blind prejudice have worn away the word. A thousand different means have warped it by ignorance; the stereotyped screaming, hysterical straw-feminist has become embedded in the public’s mind’s-eye. So when I do say in public that I happen to be a feminist, most often than not I’m greeted by an instinctual aggression born out of fear and revulsion, from both sexes. Either they despise the word and all the connotations, or, on occasion, my arguments and observations. They challenge them with phrases such as: “Inequality doesn’t exist anymore.” and “Femi-nazi.” Or, just to be original, they crack a sandwich joke.


I’m a lowly fresher. Back in the day of A-Levels and AQA, I assumed that when I went to university this anti-feminist attitude would change in the environment of medical textbooks and formaldehyde. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case. In fact, one of my colleagues asked me, quite candidly, to tell him “Why do I, as a male medical student, need feminism? Go on.”

It may be shocking to some to learn that it was feminism that championed the right for half their colleagues to attend Uni in the first place. Approximately 50% of medical students in London are female. Whilst this is rightly considered a victory for equality and feminism, women in medicine aren’t yet on the same playing field as their male colleagues. The figures in areas renowned to be male-dominated are enough to make you cringe. In 2011, women made up only 8.7% of the consultant surgeons in England, and in specialities such as Anaesthetics, Ophthalmology and Gastroenterology, men still hold the overwhelming majority. Just ask your female friends the number of times they’ve been on work experience and the consultant asked whether you wanted to go into a) Paediatrics or b) Obs & Gynaecology, whilst your male colleague was assumed to be interested in surgery. Not only do these trends hinder female med students, but also lead to stigmatisation of specific specialities, such as Obstetrics and Paediatrics for men, and so limit their potential. As ever, these inequalities are a double-edged sword.

Pregnancy, family and maternity leave are also made into obstacles for women, who often find themselves pressured into delaying -and in some cases, foregoing- the chance to raise and care for their families in favour of their education and career. No man realistically has to choose between his career and children. No woman should have to. Yet the NHS still remains an environment where healthcare establishments are skewed against them. Take GPs – At the moment, payments for locums who cover, lets say, a female doctor on maternity leave, is left to the discretion of the Primary Care Trust (PCTs). Although these locum costs are considerable, PCTs have the right to pay as little as they wish, with some refusing to contribute any funding at all. This seriously deters GP practices from employing female doctors. The same problem exists with the current system employed in hospitals, where locums are scarce. With not enough to take their place if they go on maternity leave and the workload falling heavy on their colleagues, female doctors are frequently victimised and resented, and their male and female colleagues left without pay for crippling overtime. This is the fault of a stuttering system, not doctors who also want to be mothers. Female doctors are also less likely to reach leadership positions, such as presidents of Royal Colleges and deans of medical schools.

Now let’s look to our future patients. As doctors and health professionals, we are realistically on the frontline of today’s most horrifying abuse against women. It is estimated that 24,000 girls under the age of 15 are currently at risk of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the UK. 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence. 85,000 women are raped on average every year in England and Wales. According to LWA (Living Without Abuse): “Approximately 400 people commit suicide each year who have attended hospital for domestic abuse injuries in the previous six months, 200 of these attend hospital on the day they go on to commit suicide”. It is to we doctors that these women will come and to whom we owe a duty of care and empathy. To disregard feminism is to disregard them, their bruises, and their cuts. If we as medical students don’t actively challenge rape culture and “slut-shaming”, how can we look our patients in the eyes and say we did all we could to help? If we adhere to the definitions of rape society has let rapists dictate, “She had to have struggled and screamed and fought, and bled this amount, otherwise it couldn’t have been rape.” How can we possibly seek to comfort a rape victim who was too scared to speak?

But now, I’m not going to write as a medical student to other medical students. I’m going to write as a young woman to other young people across London. Because as soon as I shrug off my DR coat or walk out of the lecture hall, I know that I will walk home through dark streets with my keys clutched in my fist, in the hope that maybe – just maybe – it might stop an assailant. I know that when my friends and I go out after a hard week of studying, I am going to be sexually assaulted in a club by a stranger with a rough grope. I know that if I am raped, my shiny medical degree and the tired fallacy of that security blanket that separates the “professionals” from the “lay-people” is going to be torn up. Because, invariably, the first thing they’ll ask is what I was wearing.

I know as I type that some reading this will be dismissive. They’ll fob this off as being over- dramatic. I’m probably just another one of those crazy – and probably gay- man-haters, who wants nothing more than to burn down Ann Summers and kill babies. But I would ask them to just sit down and take a look at women, and what we have to deal with on a constant basis, every day, 24/7. Women are still told that if they get their arse pinched, they were really looking for it wearing that skirt. From before we hit puberty, we walk down the street in school uniform and expect to have sexual profanities spat at us. If we try to speak out, we’re told we need to calm down, love. We still have to request for a male chaperone to walk us home at night after a disco, where one kiss on a dance-floor means that if we don’t go the whole way, we’re a cock-tease. And if we do, we’re a slut.

I was having this debate with a friend one day, and I asked him, just for one moment to consider if he had a daughter, how he would feel about her facing this continuous onslaught of sexism. “I don’t know how I’d… I’d be angry I suppose– Wait– Don’t do that.” he protested. “You’re making it personal.” But you see, that’s the thing. This whole issue is personal. When women are told that we must choose between our children and our careers, it’s personal. When we’re cat-called by strangers in the street, it’s personal. When we’re raped and told that by some bizarre, twisted logic that it was our fault, and that we could have prevented it, it’s personal. Because every woman is someone’s daughter.

So why do medical students need feminism? It’s simple. It’s because our careers are going to be smothered in the results of sexism. Our colleagues or we may not become a surgeon, or any number of specialists because of the difference in our gonads. Our careers may be stunted by our decision to have a family. Our patients are going to try to hide bruises inflicted by their partners, and our rape centres are still going to be heaving with victims. Our autopsy rooms will receive 3 women a week, put there by a current or ex- partner. And when we step out of the hospital, I, and your girlfriend, and sister, and daughter, and friend, may become one of them. Medical students need feminism because we still ask why we need it.

By Miriam Barker

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