I had some surprising (and if I’m telling the truth, a bit upsetting) feedback recently. During their end of attachment debrief one of our F2s said that they found me ‘intimidating’. I’ve had isolated comments like this before on the odd MSF, and haven’t usually taken much notice of them.
But I’m in more of a contemplative mood these days. As an educationalist geek I’ve been doing a lot of reading on critical reflection and feedback so I decided to focus on this more. This blog post followed naturally on from that. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts.
My self image is that I’m really quite a nice person. I’ve met a few people in medicine who pride themselves on a ‘take no nonsense’ attitude and I’ve never been a fan of this approach. I can clearly remember (all too cringingly) my first nervous tentative days in EM, and find it easy to empathise with colleagues who feel out of their depth. I’ve been there. I know what it’s like. I see it as part of my role as the registrar to support my colleagues. I’ve provided tissues and a shoulder to cry on for junior doctors who’ve had the sharp end of someone else’s tongue. I’ve made cups of tea for someone who’s just had enough at the end of a run of nights. I’ve stood up for my junior colleagues with stroppy specialty teams. My reflex answer to the question ‘Can I just ask you about…’ is ‘Of course, that’s what I’m here for’ because I’ve been on the other side (and I still ask questions). I am fastidious about making sure people get their breaks, because I remember how awful it was feeling hungry and thirsty and not wanting to ask for a break because we were really busy. I’m not perfect but I do my best because I genuinely want people to enjoy their time in the ED. I love my job and I hope that over the course of my career I’ll be able to inspire other people to join us in the best specialty in medicine.
Yet despite my best efforts, I’d made someone feel intimidated. It upset me.
I sat and I thought about it. I thought about all the registrars and consultants I’d worked for over the years in an attempt to find some kind of pattern. How had I felt about them? How many of them had I found intimidating/scary?
What I realised surprised me.
Male consultants or registrars? 1 or 2 in the 12 years since I qualified (and to be perfectly honest, these chaps had some major interpersonal skills issues). The women? I feel embarrassed to admit that it was a very long list. Over my career there are many senior female doctors that I have found intimidating. They’re also usually the ones that I most admire; they’re damn good at their job – knowledgeable, competent, efficient and ambitious. If I was sick, I’d want them looking after me. Yet they intimidate me. Why?
We judge people instinctively, and we tend to give warmth primacy in the decision making. We expect women to exhibit ‘warm’ behaviours such as nurturing and caring. Ironically, this means that women suffer most when being judged on this attribute. A female will be judged against a different standard to a man, because as a society we expect women to behave differently. So an assertive woman is viewed as not being warm and we see this in a negative light. An assertive man? We accept this as normal masculine behaviour. (Cuddy et al, 2011)
To add insult to injury, women face a double bind. When they are demonstrably competent, they are seen as less warm. In fact, the more competent they are, the less warm they are perceived to be (Kervyn et al, 2009).
As a female trainee, it does feel a bit like I can’t win. In EM there are times when you have to be assertive. Leading a team in a critical situation requires someone who can be appropriately assertive, confident and make decisions. Yet by doing this well, people will view you negatively:
‘Highly competent women and successful female managers are viewed as capable of leadership, but also as hostile, selfish, devious and lacking social skills – by both male and female perceivers (Heilman et al, 1995, Heilman Wallen, Fuchs, & Tamkins, 2004; Rudman, 1998; Rudman & Glick, 1999; Rudman & Glick, 2001, in Cuddy et al, 2011)
‘Although women must present themselves as self confident, assertive and professional to be considered for leadership roles, when they do so they risk social and economic reprisals’ (Rudman and Phelan, 2008, p64)
So what to do? To succeed, women must be warm and friendly, demonstrating traditional feminine traits such as caring and nurturing. Yet at the same time, to be successful in my job, I need to be competent, confident and assertive. No easy task.
I feel a little confused by all of this, but also a little reassured. I’d be more worried if I was perceived as warm but not competent, and as a petite female flexible trainee with several children it can be difficult to be taken seriously. I’ve experienced my fair share of comments along the lines of ‘You’re pregnant again? Don’t you have a TV?, derogatory remarks about being a ‘part timer’ and even, when wanting to take OOPE to pursue a special interest ‘Why are you making your life so difficult?’
In reaction to this, maybe I’ve tried too hard to project confidence and competence and gone too far the other way. Maybe I need to let my guard down more, be warmer, more authentic, less defensive.
So it’s all about finding an elusive balance. Getting to know someone well makes it easier to see them as warm. This is tougher for flexible trainees (you’re there less, so it takes everyone longer to get to know you). We all seem to spend less time socialising after work too – our home lives have taken on greater importance. This is certainly not wrong, but it makes getting to know people that bit harder.
I’ve learned that I am just as guilty of making these judgements as others. If I as a feminist, can judge other women in this way (and being intimidated is my subconscious making a judgement) then I’m not surprised that others do the same to me. So while I try my hardest to project a warm and competent manner I’ll also be trying not to do it to other people. What do you think?
Cuddy, A.J., Glick, P., Beninger, A. (2011): The Dynamics of Warmth and Competence Judgments, and their Outcomes in Organizations Research in Organizational Behavior: 31 73–98.
Kervyn, N., Yzerbyt, V. Y., Judd, C. M., & Nunes, A. (2009). A question of compensation: The social life of the fundamental dimensions of social perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: 96, 828-842.
Rudman, L. A., & Phelan, J. E. (2008). Backlash effects for disconfirming gender stereotypes in organizations. Research in Organizational Behavior: 28, 61-79.