Have We Really Come A Long Way?

Photo of Jill Abramson, first female editor of the New York Times. Photo courtesy of Fred R. Conrad/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom/Forbes.com

Photo of Jill Abramson, first female editor of the New York Times. Photo courtesy of Fred R. Conrad/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom/Forbes.com

I’m sure that by now, many of you have heard or read about the abrupt sacking of Jill Abramson from her New York Times post more than two weeks ago. She was the Times’ first female executive editor. The Internet has been all a-buzz with discussions about gender bias in the workforce. We are all too familiar with the term, “the glass ceiling.” It means that women and other minorities have a hard time breaking through an invisible barrier to the top positions of any sizeable organization. The reasons may be more subtle or nuanced. In recent years, more and more women and other minorities as well, have managed to land top executive positions in various industries. However, those that have managed to nab these coveted appointments seem to have more difficulty keeping their positions. Hence, the new term, “the glass cliff.”

Many social scientists have explored various industries to explain this. They looked at women executives in various industries. Although they do exist, there are not many. Recently, researchers looked into the Sports industry and Fortune 500 companies. They found that in both these domains, minorities and women tend to be hired by companies or teams that are struggling or are in dire straits, where the stakes are really high for any kind of success. And so, in effect, it appears as though they are pushed off the cliff. The likelihood of failing is higher. Is this because women and minorities tend to take these posts thinking it may be their only option for a top position? Or, do struggling companies tend to hire female managers because they are believed to be more mindful and struggling firms have staff that need soothing?

*****

I am reminded of my own struggles starting out in Toronto back in the ’90s. I was fortunate to have been invited by a colleague to join her growing practice in the suburbs. She was a few years ahead of me in training. She had joined a group of other Pediatricians who were on staff at the hospital near her office. What I did not expect was the abject partisanship I encountered right from the interview for hospital privileges to my day-to-day encounters with them.

There were five men in the Pediatric Department of the hospital, aside from my practice partner, Eileen. The youngest one was almost 20 years my senior. Three were old enough to be my grandparent, I thought. I would hear about their snide remarks to the nurses, who in turn, thought nothing about passing along the juicy bits to me as soon as the opportunity presented itself. I had often wondered if it was the anticipation of my reaction that interested them more. Such comments like:

“Oh, those two women. They lead such privileged leisure lives. Imagine working only 3 1/2 days a week! I wonder what their patients think of that.”

Yes, Eileen and I worked half-days a few days a week. But we made sure one of us was always around at the office. What we called half-days were really 7-8 hour days that started early in the morning going to the hospital to do our rounds for our in-patients. Then we would rush to our office to see all our patients. Full days were at least 12-hour days when we were not on-call. We limited some of our days because we were raising our children. We wanted to be present for some of their daytime events. All the other pediatricians had wives who stayed home to do that for them. We juggled schedules with our spouses, who participated more in the more mundane events of our private lives: making meals, going to piano or soccer practice, teaching how to safely cross the street or ride a bike, bedtimes, bath times, etc.

What of the skills we brought to the table with us?

“Well, so they can resuscitate a 500 gram preemie. So what?”

We had graduated in a time when babies born prematurely were surviving in astounding numbers. Early recognition and proper treatment of such diseases as Haemolytic Uremic Syndrome, Kawasaki’s Disease, RSV Bronchiolitis and the like, were already garden variety diseases that did not have to spell so much doom for families. As my first few months of practice and on-call passed quickly, it was very plain to see that we were the only ones who knew how to navigate through such diagnoses and prompt interventions in our hospital. Before long, we were getting calls from the emergency room MDs, asking if they could call on us even if we were not the ones on-call for the more complicated cases.

We were vilified as cocky about our skills by the old-timers. They would smugly pronounce:

“It is not for us to interfere with Mother Nature. We should let unfortunate conditions take their course, as God has willed it.”

My partner and I would look at each other, incredulous. I was convinced this was their way of clinging to any semblance of relevance they might still have. Medicine had progressed on motorized speed skates. They were still fastening horseshoes.

I had chosen Pediatrics as my specialty because it was a field where I wanted to make a difference. I must have been naive to leave the hallowed halls of Sick Kids expecting the rest of Toronto to be as progressive and evolved.  I had the misconception that pediatricians, having worked closely with parents, would be more understanding and accommodating. Well, was I ever wrong! The attitudes back then could be summed up in a comment a well-meaning elderly statesman-like pediatrician told my friend, Jocelyn, on why they were reluctant to take her on staff at their hospital:

“You women. You will get married, have your babies, take maternity leave, and then work part-time for a few years. You will upset our on-call schedule and even staffing in the community. It’s not worth it.”

I am told that things have changed since then, after I left Toronto.  There was a wave of retirements in the various communities surrounding the downtown.  A new wave of graduates came out of Sick Kids and change was indeed inevitable. Also, when I first started my training, there were only a handful of female pediatric residents. By the time I completed my training, more than 50% of the entire resident population was female.

*****

In more recent news bites, word has it that Ms. Abramson was let go not for anything but the fact that she did not get along with the Big Kahuna of NYT.  She also did not get along with other senior editors. Was she abrasive?  Was she tactless?  Or, was she a victim of failed expectations, i.e., if she’s female, she’s expected to be nurturing and gentle? And if she behaves anything like a man, would she be considered a barracuda?

I’m sure the conversation has not stopped.

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3 Responses to Have We Really Come A Long Way?

  1. vastlycurious.com says:

    I have encountered this wall of testosterone as recently as this month. I left the job. Sadly I believe this perpetual gender discrimination will not pass until at least 3 generations ahead have passed on.

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