Pass the scalpel, darling
“DITO AKO tatabi. Chicks, eh,” the old man says, moving to stand beside the female intern.
It sounds like a scene from inside a bar—a group of men gathered around a scantily-clad woman, the air heavy with the stale aroma of sexism. The reality: I am in an operating room during a knee replacement surgery, and I (the intern) am wearing a scrub suit and a mask just like the rest of the OR personnel. One would think that, with my face half-hidden and with my figure obviously overweight underneath regulation scrubs, I would have been saved from comments like this. I am wrong. Later after the surgery, on my way out of the OR, I make my excuses and I endure the hand of the anesthesiologist sliding from my shoulder to the small of my back. I say nothing.
The sexism follows me all the way back to the call room, where male residents call for a female intern to assist in the next surgery: pretty, if you please, to mollify some bigwig—“Yung maganda ha, pampalamig ng ulo ng consultant!” It follows me as I hurdle the obstacles to a slot in training, deflecting questions from prospective bosses about my sex life. It is the cloud that hangs over me as I walk home from the hospital, pretending not to hear the tambay in Ermita’s red-light district as they throw catcalls my way; it fuels my silent rage as my very intelligent, very enlightened, very gay male co-intern tells me I should take it as a compliment that I am being catcalled in the first place. As though I should be grateful.
It is there, still, when doors are opened for me in the hospital or when I am spared some dirty tasks by virtue of my gender. I have not yet found an eloquent way to say that I would trade these small, “chivalrous” favors for the ability to be seen as nothing different—nothing better and nothing worse—than the men next to me. I would give anything to be seen as asexual and invisible, to go through my work without worrying that my self-assurance may be construed as self-importance, or that my choice of hem length or lip color will affect perceptions of my capability or intelligence, or that sharp words and sternness will lead men around me to make (probably inaccurate) jokes about my menstrual periods.
A long time ago, I would have seen my own silence as unnecessary and cowardly; I would have stood up for myself without warning or mercy. But 18-year-old me never imagined how difficult it would be for me to win a place in the world of medicine and surgery, and how I would have to fight to keep it. I never imagined that keeping it would mean a constant, accepting silence—a daily swallowing of things that I long to say, but that can never be unsaid, and which would otherwise forever ring in the ears of men older and more powerful than me.
I’m not blind. I recognize that things have improved significantly for women in the workplace even compared to 10 years ago; the achievements of 21st-century feminism may not be loudly celebrated, but they exist. Not a day goes by when I don’t see a well-reasoned think piece on sexism in the entertainment industry. More and more girls are being encouraged to pursue math, science and technology through a variety of campaigns. A bit closer to home, women are occupying more and more slots in surgical residency programs. My own place in the hospital is a result of this progress. I have also met male doctors who have avoided the casual misogyny of their peers both inside and outside the claustrophobic, sexist arena of the operating room, earning my respect and gratitude. They may not be many, but they are there, quietly making the workplace more bearable.
The world is changing. Just not quickly enough.
The tides of change take a bit longer to reach me within the niche that is surgery. I am thinking of all of this as I walk out of a conference hall where I was one of eight women doctors surrounded by 200 men (I counted). I went to medical school like the men. I sweated through clerkship and internship, extracted blood, pushed stretchers seating six pregnant women at a time, spent hours retracting in surgery until my arms turned to jelly. I passed every exam and went through the very same hurdles. I thought this would be enough for me to earn respect as a professional, just like they did. What is it about me, I wonder, that makes it all right for a superior to threaten to kiss me on the cheek or to make insinuations about my (in reality, entirely innocuous) activities of the night before?
As I walk out, I am already planning a way out in my mind. I think of other options. I could find a less male-dominated medical specialty. Better yet, I could quit medicine entirely to get away from the infuriating, suffocating inescapability of sexism in medicine. Maybe I could garden for a living. I keep thinking that I would settle for a job—any job—where I could be treated, not as a girl or as a woman, but as a person.
From a distance, I hear my boss call out to one of my seniors—let’s call him John—to help me carry one of the heavy packages I’m toting. John looks at me from where he’s comfortably seated.
After a pause, he smiles and says I can handle it: “Kaya na niya yan.” And I continue past him.
There was a time I would have been affronted by his refusal to “help.” In a moment of clarity, however, I understand what he’s saying—a world of meaning and recognition in four words.
Finding a different career will have to wait, I think. I’m staying. I will not be chased away by wandering gazes and hurtful barbs. Maybe, as John casually demonstrated, chivalry is dead. Maybe it’s being replaced by something better. And I’m going to stick around and see the change happen for myself.
* * *
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