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The Accidental Feminist

Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes

A series of apparently unrelated events led to the writing of this blog. It is kind of self-outing, cathartic document, which could alternatively be called, The Further Education of Dr. Archer. As with many educational experiences, my journey originated in a state of blissful ignorance wherein I, a self-described egalitarian, was equally respectful of both genders, all races and admitted to bias only in matters pertaining to achievement and ice hockey.

My education began simply enough, in October 2016 when I grew concerned about a paucity of female leaders in the Department of Medicine. The cause of this leadership gap intrigued me: half the current class of Queen’s University School of Medicine is female; however, the higher up the administrative chain you go –to Division Chairs, Department Heads, Deans, and University Presidents– there are fewer and fewer females. I have always believed that the world would be a better place when the entire population (rather than just the 48% of us who are male…and the even smaller percentage who are white males) are fully engaged. Was this leadership gap the result of a glass ceiling? Were women choosing not to lead when offered the chance? Was it just a matter of not enough interest in filling the pipeline (i.e. not enough senior women to qualify for these positions)?

To answer these and other questions I commissioned the creation of a Women in Medicine program within our Department of Medicine to conduct a state of the Department assessment and advise me of setting future goals to enhance female leadership. I entrusted this to Dr. Mala Joneja, Chair of Rheumatology, with the able administrative assistance of Ms Jill McCreary.

Dr. Mala Joneja, Chair Rheumatology, Queen’s University & Ms. Jill McCreary, Special Projects and Communications Coordinator, Department of Medicine

As President of the Canadian Association o Professors of Medicine (CAPM) I thought this would be a worthwhile topic to discussion with the leaders of academic Medicine programs access Canada.

Accordingly I invited a colleague who does research in this area, Dr. Gillian Hawker, Head of Medicine at the University of Toronto, to address our group with an update on the Status of Women in Medicine.

Dr. Hawker presented the picture and historically it wasn’t pretty. As she recounted experiences (hers and others) it was clear that female physicians historically faced the many stereotypes that intentionally or not held them back. They were not tough enough, too family focused or (for those with energy and a decisive style) hard to work with and difficult. More optimistically she noted that while 36% of the University of Toronto faculty were female this was improving and promotion success was similar amongst males and females. However, while there are lots of women in Medicine, few are at the top. Interestingly, Dr. Hawker followed a female Department Head, Dr. Wendy Levinson, and despite this role modelling there were still relatively few woman in leadership positions. Dr. Hawker described her own struggles persuading qualified women to lead in Toronto. This is a struggle I have had at Queen’s University, where I have received a number of “hard NOs” in response to leadership offers. So the CAPM membership decided as a group to survey ourselves and make a national snapshot of women in Medicine in 2017 and then author a position paper on how to get form the current state to a better ore equitable future. That’s the topic of our April CAPM meeting!

As I left the Ottawa CAPM meeting I had several things on my mind. One was that the problem with exclusionary –isms (like sexism) is not just the pain and injustice they cause, it’s also that they deprive society of talent. Malcolm X, the American civil rights leader, summarized this loss of talent, although his focus was on structural racism (segregation) in the United States. Here is an excerpt from an article which I saw below while visiting the Chicago Cultural Center to see an art exhibit by Eugene Eda (below).

Doors for Malcom X-A display of the art of Eugene Eda: Doors for Malcolm X College. Eda an African America artist who painted these doors for the now demolished Malcom X College in Chicago. Seen at the Chicago Cultural Centre Feb 2017.

Many whites did not appreciate Malcolm X’s message because he was not sufficiently deferential, not a pacifist (as his quote reminds us). Although this is one of his less aggressive calls to action, it is relevant to call for feminism…too strident some say. In fact feminists are often mislabelled as disliking men, rather than simply wanting equality. Women, young and old, inspired by the recent US election are starting to make some noise of their own.

Feminism in action: Women protesting for equality following Trump’s inauguration

Five months after our initial meeting, Dr. Joneja asked me to “show leadership” by being first to complete the Queen’s University Diversity and Equity survey. As a friend and colleagues, she hoped I would complete the survey and then be able to speak positively of it to my fellow Department Heads and inspire them to complete it, too. “Delighted to,” I said.

I anticipated no problems…after all, I was in the process of creating a Women in Medicine program AND men and women are paid equally in our Department. I thought it’d be a piece of cake. Then I took the survey.

I will sheepishly admit to you that, to my surprise, the survey annoyed me. I was peeved because it asked me what I was “doing to promote feminism in my Department.”

 “Nothing,”, I said defiantly, “I am promoting equality!”

I mentioned my response to the survey to my eldest daughter, Elizabeth (a feminist playwright in Chicago), which prompted a corrective comment about my not understanding the definition of feminism.

Dad, it just means equal rights for men and women. It’s not about trying to give women MORE rights than men.”

I sputtered something about not having understood it that way.

Elizabeth Archer 2017

I then mentioned my reaction to my friend Ms Anita Ng (Centre-right photo) who is Department of Medicine (DOM) manager.

Anita Ng (Centre) with several members of the DOM administrative team (Jill McCreary, Whitney Montgomery, Emily Briffett, Stephanie Hartwick)

Anita sympathetically confirmed the veracity of Elizabeth’s definition and then showed me a truly touching video by Emma Watson (aka Hermione from the Harry Potter films) speaking to the UN of women’s rights (well worth a watch). Ms. Watson (and the feminist theorists and activists who came before her and informed her speech) is right: we impoverish our society and our personal life if we persist in antiquated beliefs about the capacities of women or ascribe implicit or explicit limits on the roles they can serve. Bringing feminism to life requires not just empowering our daughters with a can-do spirit, but also (and perhaps more importantly) teaching our sons that they are no better or worse than women; we are complementary, not competing, genders.

Global Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson at the United Nations-Defining Feminism as Equality and Inviting Men to Join the Discussion of Feminism

Ever a glutton for education, I talked to Dr. Joneja about my response to survey and, you guessed it, received a third reiteration of the definition and intent of feminism… equality (not special rights). This time, I was given literature! Mala handed me a copy of Chimamanda Adichie’s, We Should all be Feminists. 

Chimamanda Adichie publisher (Anchor Books)

In her book (the transcript of her 20-minute TEDx talk) this Nigerian author reminds us she can be a feminist and still be girlie and love fashion. She can speak her mind, be argumentative and run the project, the company, or the world without being defined by, or serving to please, men. Conversely, she reminds us that –despite the ways they’ve been portrayed by the media and thought of for decades– being a feminist does not mean that you’re an unhappy, super-serious, man-haters. She also chronicles the ways in which male stereotypes are just as damaging as female stereotypes. She rails against the hard-man image espoused in Nigeria, the brittle man who is taught by society to hide emotions, be strong and always to provide for the woman. In essence she speaks for the equality of the genders, a rallying cry I always supported (but now know is called feminism).

Chimamanda acknowledges other negative forces, like racism and poverty but compellingly argues, Some people ask, “Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?” Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human. For centuries, the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that.”

Three strikes you’re out, right? Not for me. I showed the book to my youngest daughter, Anya (on the right), who then played Beyoncé’s Flawless for me. In this song, excerpts from Adichie’s speech play over Beyonce’s flawless music.

Elizabeth (left) and Anya (right) circa 2016; Chicago

So now I have been educated, watched the video, read the book and I am better for it. I have internalized the definition of Feminist as “a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes”. Without feeling like I am pandering, I can now say that I am a feminist, and intend to keep learning about how to be a better one. I am looking forward to our Women in Medicine retreat (scheduled to be attended by ~50 faculty), and look forward to more advice and education about how we move forward.

Just as Malcolm X recognized that, in addition to its inhumanity and brutality, racism (and the resulting societal segregation) deprived society of a great deal of talent. The same can be said of a failure by all of us (men and women) to embrace feminism as the positive recognition of equality that it is.

Postscript: My wife, Dr. Kathie Doliszny, suggested that if I wanted to illustrate the gains to society that derive from embracing feminism and fighting back against racism, I was too late…the movie “Hidden Figures” –the story of black female NASA scientists who overcome the numerous racial and gender-based obstacles in their paths to help get the space program off the ground– has already hit the theaters!

2 Responses to The Accidental Feminist

  1. Eve Purdy says:

    Dr. Archer,

    Thanks for writing this. It is a complex issue and a fascinating reality that we are slowly chipping away at…I admire what the CAPM and Department of Medicine are doing and hopefully the School of Medicine/Faculty of Health Sciences will follow suit. I was thankful to be at the table this fall for the SoM steering committee but was rather disheartened that only 3/20 around the table were women.

    I am currently doing my masters in anthropology, with a thesis likely to be from a feminist anthropology perspective. Today I came across the attached article for a class project. It is a traditional discourse analysis of letters of recommendation for promotion in a medical faculty (http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0957926503014002277 sorry for the pay wall). There are some tangible takeaways that we might consider when writing and reading letters of recommendation. The researchers found a higher volume of “letters of minimal assurance” (rather than letters of recommendation), gender-linked terms, references to personal life, and doubt-raising comments but lower volume of the use of additional titles and stand-out adjectives in women’s letters. Furthermore, they found that the differential use of possessive phrases that portrayed women as students/teachers and men as researchers/professionals. The more hierarchical the organization – of which we can agree medicine is on an extreme end of the spectrum – the more likely these differences are related to the application of a gender schema and less likely they are to genuine difference in quality. Anyhow, worth the read both for their interesting methods and the thoughtful discussion. Another interesting review

    Some might also be interested in the site feminem.org – though emerg focused I think it is easily accessible and relevant to any budding medical feminist. Some of your faculty may be interested in a development conference organized through the group next fall called the FeminEM idea exchange (though again likely applicable beyond emergency medicine).

    Happy to chat feminism in medicine any time. Thanks for writing this. Hopefully you will inspire some deliberate feminists!

    Eve

    • Stephen Archer says:

      Dear Eve

      Thanks for your comments-insightful as always. On the positive side I am confident we have pay equity (equal pay for equal work) in the DOM and have an ever increasing numbers of women in leadership positions. Stay tuned for announcements about our Departments Women in Medicine Program-which has now had its first meeting- and announcements re: additional female leadership in Medicine.

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Dr. Archer, Dept. Head
Dr. Archer, Dept. Head