The only assumption we, as healthcare professionals, should be making about one another in the workplace setting is that we are each aspiring to provide the very best care for our patients. Is mutual respect too much to ask for in the 21st century?
You may have already read this personal account of an Emergency Department interaction by @SLuckettG – if you haven’t, I strongly suggest you do so, since its contents have resonated internationally among women working in EM and other specialties. We’ve spoken before here at St Emlyn’s about the challenges of being a woman in EM and both accounts are familiar to me too – I am often described as scary or intimidating.
What prompted me to sit down at the keyboard was a false dichotomy emerging among women responding to the situation in the post above: the idea that women can either be nice (but fail to be assertive) or be “bitchy” in the workplace.
What is a “nice” doctor? And what is “bitchy”, in the context of a senior Emergency Department doctor? Neither definition over at Urban Dictionary is particularly appealing:
Nice: Used as a filler during a pause in conversation. Doesn’t necessarily mean something complimentary.
Bitchy: An adjective that’s supposed to be used to describe someone irritable, moody and whiny. Even if a person is not bitchy but rather, honest or blunt, a stupid person may use “bitchy” to describe that person.
When at that crossroad, always pick competent bitch, you and your patients will thank you https://t.co/Y7Vnyo5S1a
— Kari Sampsel (@KariSampsel) April 9, 2016
I find this hard to reconcile with my own Emergency Department experiences; I certainly do not want to be “bitchy” in my workplace.
I try hard to be polite and respectful and to say please and thank you (and sometimes these things really do not come easily). The Emergency Department can be a very difficult place to work at times and the teamwork therein is one of my absolute favourite things about our specialty. I have been fortunate to have a similar experience in my current working environment, with role models like Geoff Healy passionately advocating that the Sydney HEMS teams work hard to win “hearts and minds” when we meet other healthcare teams in the prehospital or hospital environment.
Please don’t mistake me here – I do not believe the people responding to the article genuinely mean that they would prefer to be “bitchy” – articulating a complex viewpoint never quite comes across in the 140character world of Twitter and I do not mean to be disrespectful towards them – I think they mean to say that in the same situation they would prioritise patient care over their colleagues’ perceptions of them as people.
Of course they would. And you would too. But I find this difficult to read because in reality we just don’t have to make that decision. This is not about being “bitchy”. We need to stop characterising assertiveness as such and I think we need to stop calling women “bitchy”, full stop.
There is undoubtedly a tension in the perception of women as assertive characters (Sandy Simons has written eloquently about behavioural expectations around women over at EM News) and I can’t help but wonder whether acute specialties, with their relatively frequently-occurring emergency situations necessitating timely action, attract and to a degree select a particular subset of personalities who might find it easier to embody the role of one who Owns the Resus Room (to quote Cliff Reid). This doesn’t mean that we can’t be assertive AND nice and actually this simplification commits us to finding a solution within our own behaviours, perhaps, rather than challenging the preconceptions which drive these tensions in the first place.
Reductionist, polarised views of subsections of society (women, people of colour, those who express a particular sexual preference, people struggling with mental health issues, for example) are extremely unhelpful, not least because they generate narrow-minded assumption-based interpretations of the actions of anyone identified as being within those groups but also because they generate oversimplified solutions to the inherent inequalities between them. The fact remains that people are different. The assumption that any applicable adjective (female, straight, married, British, childless – so what?) generates a definition of a person to the exclusion of all others is wrong.
As far as I can see, the only possible answer to the situation S Luckett-G describes is the adoption of a level of mutual respect among healthcare professionals. If you haven’t watched Victoria Brazil at smaccGOLD talking about how tribes within medicine are divisive, please do that. The only assumption we, as healthcare professionals, should be making about one another in the workplace setting is that we are each aspiring to provide the very best care for our patients. If and when we inevitably disagree with one another about care-related decisions, that platform of shared purpose is the one from which our resolutions should spring forward, instead of looking for character, gender, preference or cultural traits to explain where the conflict came from.
— Thom O’Neill (@fakethom) April 7, 2016
But also this completely unhelpful response.
Is mutual respect too much to ask for in the 21st century?
Of course not. But it needs to come from all of us, whether you are experiencing it or not. Maybe then we’ll be able to look back and wonder why the hell we were making so much fuss about how gloriously, wonderfully, beautifully different we all are.
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