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Unpacking the “Insult” of Being Called a Nurse as a Female Physician

It’s a common scenario: a male medical student and a female resident walk into a patient’s room together, and the patient automatically assumes that the man is the doctor, and the woman is the nurse. Despite the fact that more women than men enrolled in U.S. medical schools in 2019, female medical students, residents and even attending physicians are far more likely to be mistaken for nurses than their male counterparts — women of color, even more so. As a female medical student myself, I like to joke that if I had a dollar for every time someone in the hospital calls me a nurse, I could pay off all my student loans.

This is a problem. Certainly, with the myriad of roles and responsibilities in a hospital setting, having your position constantly mistaken for another is not only frustrating but can also compromise patient care due to miscommunication between team members. However, I worry a bit when I hear conversations among female physicians going something like this: “…and then, he called me a nurse! Can you imagine? Um, excuse me, I did not go through four years of medical school to be called a nurse.”

Can we stop for a moment and consider why being called a nurse is insulting to female physicians and medical students?

It’s not just because it is factually incorrect; rather, it is an incorrect assumption based on a stereotype. A two-second glance at my badge could confirm my role in the hospital, but many people don’t even take that time, which alone is sufficient grounds for my irritation. Furthermore, the convenience of the stereotype is born from the assumption that a woman in scrubs couldn’t possibly have gone through the extensive training required to become a doctor. This, of course, is offensive and must be addressed.

But what really bothers me about this scenario, in addition to the often incorrect assumptions made about a woman’s title in the hospital, is the implicit notion that female physicians are working harder than their nursing counterparts to challenge gender stereotypes. There is a belief that the “successful” women in medicine, the ones who are shattering glass ceilings and closing gender gaps in the workplace, are the physicians — not the nurses. For example, as Dr. Megan Lemay writes in an article originally published on KevinMD, “To me, it feels like we’ve just splintered the shell of this previously male-dominated field. Being called ‘nurse’ reminds me of the enormous gender gap I have yet to cross. Overpowering gender stereotypes will take more than outnumbering the men in our field.” I doubt many people in medicine today need convincing that female doctors face a preposterous amount of sexism throughout their training (but here’s an article on the subject anyway).

But we must realize that the field of nursing also faces challenges with regards to gender discrimination — albeit in different ways than those seen in medicine. Unlike doctoring, nursing has always been dominated by women. And these women in nursing have had their work cut out for them in order to elevate their profession into what it is today. Nursing has risen from an unskilled position requiring no formal education prior to the 19th century to a hugely diverse field with opportunities for advanced practice degrees, research, and teaching.

Unfortunately, despite all these advances, nurses are still struggling against gender bias in the workplace. The very fact that male nurses face judgement and stigma over their pursuit of a “feminine career” says quite a lot about the perceptions of female-dominated professions. As a result of traditional views of women as subordinates, particularly in the healthcare setting, nurses often face disrespect and discrimination from physicians. And still, despite the predominance of women in nursing, there remains gender bias within the field, not just outside of it.

Just as female physicians lament the deficit of women in leadership positions in medicine, surveys have shown that in the United Kingdom, male nurses are roughly twice as likely to hold certain leadership positions in the hospital. Somehow, female nurses are even fighting a gender pay gap, according to the 2018 Nursing Salary Research Report. Suffice to say that although they may not be breaking into a male-dominated field, nurses — as professional women — are nevertheless fighting gender stereotypes just as their female physician counterparts are, in the hopes that their voices will be heard and respected.

As female doctors and doctors-to-be, when we’re mistaken for nurses, it’s frustrating to feel like our work to enter the field of medicine has gone unrecognized. But this frustration ought not to mask the fact that nurses, too, are fighting battles of their own when it comes to gender discrimination. Women in medicine and nursing: let’s all shatter glass ceilings together without tearing each other down. Let’s stop making assumptions, and start treating each other with the respect we all deserve as members of a health care team.

Jessa Fogel (1 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Vanderbilt University School of Medicine

Jessa is a second-year medical student at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, TN, class of 2022. In 2017, she graduated from Dartmouth College with a Bachelor of Arts in biology with a minor in international studies. She enjoys running, reading, and painting in her free time. In the future, Jessa would like to pursue a career in general surgery or OB/GYN