Women’s News: Sorry… But Are You Really a Doctor?


Penny Wilson

General practitioner and obstetrician

Sometimes I get the distinct impression that the general public believes that doctors graduate from medical school as middle aged men. It’s understandable really. After all, that’s what TV has taught us…

This attitude presents itself repeatedly in social situations. Many times when meeting new people I have mentioned that I work at the local hospital or GP clinic, only to be met with the response, “Oh, are you a receptionist there?” “Er, no, I’m a doctor there.” “Oh.”

… Awkward!

As a junior hospital doctor, it was an almost daily occurrence that patients would mistake me for a nurse, student, or anything other than a doctor. Many female doctors would be familiar with these scenarios:

  • You enter a patient’s room and they are on the phone. They end their call by saying “I gotta go, the nurse is here to see me.”
  • You spend 45 minutes with a patient taking a history, performing an examination, taking bloods, explaining their diagnosis and management plan. Then they say “Ok, when do I get to see the doctor?”
  • Having to repeatedly deflect groping hands, flirty comments and admiring looks up and down from overly friendly male patients who care more about what you look like than what your job title is.

Unfortunately, introducing yourself as a doctor, wearing an ID badge that says “Doctor Such-and-Such,” draping a stethoscope around your neck and wearing a uniform that has “DOCTOR” embroidered on it does not prevent these assumptions from occurring. The overwhelming evidence of you being young and female apparently overrides all of those other more subtle clues as to your occupation.

Then there are the patients who subtly check that you are qualified to treat them by asking something like “so… how long have you been a doctor for?” I’m always secretly gratified by their surprise and sudden change of attitude when I tell them that I’ve been a doctor for seven years and that I’ve done 12 years of training and study to become fully-qualified as a GP obstetrician. Both myself and a friend of mine have, on separate occasions, been asked “Sorry… but are you really a doctor? A medical doctor?” when responding to in-flight calls for medical assistance. Some patients just come straight out and say “you look way too young to be a doctor.”

I don’t really mind patients thinking I look young. After all, I am still very early in my career and have many years ahead of me. In fact, I’m sure I’ll be disappointed when patients stop telling me I look young. Haha.

The thing that bothers me the most is when my age or gender affects how I’m perceived by co-workers and colleagues, people who should know better! Anecdotally, female junior doctors seem to get a tougher time of it than their male counterparts. For instance, many of my peers (both male and female) have reported that female interns and residents seem to have to work harder to earn the respect of some nurses. Personally, I have felt at times like I’ve had to prove myself more than my male peers. As an intern, I also had my entirely male surgical team make jokes about whether or not I was pregnant because on one occasion I got a little light headed in theatre during a five-hour operation! The resident expected me to make him coffee in the morning and the consultant told me that I was a great intern but would never make a good surgeon due to my delicate constitution. Unbelievable!

I thought that this would improve with time as I became more senior, and generally it has. Every now and then, though, it does still crop up. During my caesarean lists at Bentley, theatre staff would often look to my male colleague for instructions even when I was the primary surgeon and he was my assistant.

Recently, I was the only obstetrician in a small country town for a few days and was covering the roster on my own. I had booked a patient for a caesarean section for the Friday morning and had organised theatre staff, anaesthetics and a surgical assistant. Another (older male) GP obstetrician arrived that morning and — despite the fact that I was still the duty obstetric doctor — said “Well you’ll be assisting me, then.” I was quite affronted by his apparent assumption that either (a) I wasn’t qualified to do caesareans, or (b) that he somehow had more right to do it then me. I had to assert that: no, as the duty doctor, I would be doing the caesarean, but that he was most welcome to cancel his clinic patients so that he could assist me if he liked.

Doesn’t he know that young, slightly neurotic and clumsy women make brilliant obstetricians?

Luckily, the vast majority of interactions with colleagues and patients are mutually respectful and rewarding, and these relationships only get better with time. But, if we’ve only just met, please don’t make judgements about my skills or competence based on my age and/or gender. And patients, please realize that doctors come in all different shapes and sizes, not just middle aged men!

I would love to hear from you if you have been treated differently because of your demographics. Or have I got it all wrong? All opinions welcome!

From a few of the comments on my original post it seems that some people have misinterpreted my words as being disrespectful towards nurses. I’d like to just clarify that I have a huge amount of admiration and respect for my nursing and midwifery colleagues who do an amazing job and who have saved my butt more times than I can recall. I certainly don’t feel insulted to be called a nurse. In fact, when I was promoted to “honorary midwife” on my maternity unit I took it as a huge compliment. I refer you to this excellent blog post which articulates all the reasons why doctors and nurses are different, and why they should be recognized for those differences.

The point I’m trying to make is that assumptions about your professional capability (in any field) should not be judged on looks, gender, age, or any other demographic characteristic, but rather on the way you do your job. I plan to keep on being the best damn doctor I can be and proving those misconceptions wrong and, I will defend to my last breath everyone else’s right to do the same.

Read More:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/penny-wilson/women-doctors_b_3652779.html?utm_hp_ref=women&ir=Women


  1. I don’t think I have, much – or maybe I’m just too dozy to notice (having been treated differently). I’m amazed at your experiences, and annoyed for you!

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