By Nellie Stidham
Warning: This piece contains strong themes including sexism and sexual harassment
"In May 1991, Frances K. Conley, the first female tenured professor of neurosurgery in the country, made headline news when she resigned from Stanford University to protest the medical school's unabashed gender discrimination. In this controversial, forthright memoir, Conley portrays the world of academic medicine in which women are still considered inferior; she also explains why, as a consequence, the research and treatment of women's health problems lag far behind those of men. In assessing why women's careers and psyches are suffering, Conley provides a first-person look into what it is like to be an accomplished woman within this restrictive medical world, offering invaluable advice to patients and future doctors alike.” (Conley, 1998, Cover Page)
When I first found this book, I was ecstatic. A memoir about the first female tenured neurosurgeon in the country talking about the culture of medical schools? How interesting and potentially applicable to my life. I cracked open the book to familiar statements about the difficulties for women in the 1990s to break into medicine. Here was another woman confirming what I already knew: a male-dominated culture meant that a woman's success and progression in the medical field depended on her mentors, mentors that had only known an environment without women as equals. Who she knew was just as important as her abilities. Above all, the most shocking part was how recent it felt, how readily I could compare what she was saying to the stories of many female doctors I know today, and the fields in which these women have ended up practicing.
For the first half of the memoir, Dr. Conley gives a glimpse into what medical school is like, and how being an ambitious woman can sometimes cause a single-minded focus towards becoming established in the medical profession or the field of one's choice. She brings up small injustices, relates the instances where she brushes off sexual jokes, hoping to feel like she belongs in a world that she has been working her whole life to be part of. Midway through the memoir, she addresses fellow neurosurgeon Gerald Silverber’s treatment of her and the hospital staff. In alarming descriptions, Gerry is said to freely grope operating room nurses while they scrub for surgeries, because they cannot defend themselves unless they are willing to break the sterilization process and have to re-scrub (p. 50). It is hard to imagine this happening today, however there is a much subtler type of abuse described that is more familiar today.
Gerry refused to refer to Dr. Conley by her name, instead calling her “dear” or “honey.” She repeatedly asked him to refer to her by her first name, Fran, or by her full title, but he never changed. “Gerry chose gender as the means by which to establish his superior status. He defused my competitive threat by having our workplace acknowledge his male dominance, and more than ever before, ‘Fran’ became ‘honey’.”(p. 66) These sorts of microaggressions undermined her abilities as a professional. When Gerry once called her ‘honey’ in an operating room, she felt that “all at once, [she] was no longer the neurosurgeon in charge… it took five minutes for [her] to re-establish a proper degree of control over the male resident--he had abruptly decided it was beneath him to work for a ‘honey’.” (p. 65) Imagine a female doctor referring to her male colleague as honey. How much respect would he garner after that referent? The basic act of referring to someone as honey instead of doctor, or even their name, undermines years of school, professional development, and basic respect that everyone deserves. It brings a new power to the phrase “Not Your Honey.”
When I first picked up this memoir, I hoped it would be applicable to my life one day. I was not expecting to find that it applied to my life already. The pages are filled with testimonials of women who have had to deal with heartbreaking injustices, frightening advances from men ranked higher in the workforce than them, threats about their livelihood, and even situations that can scar people for the rest of their lives. Each of these women handles their situation differently, and it is hard to say which of them handles it ‘best’.
I think the most important thing that I have gained from reading this memoir is the idea that whenever someone feels lucky or fortunate to have made it into a group or profession, we must ask if they have put up with things that they otherwise would object to. If women or men feel uncomfortable in the moment, but do not want to jeopardize a position that they have worked hard for, they may not object even though they find the behavior objectionable in other situations. When people feel beholden to those abusing them, they are often blind to the injustices of the situation or do not feel that the cost of objecting outweighs the benefit of staying and suffering. This realization has made me reexamine my life, and I have found many situations where looking back I was not comfortable with the situation, but also did not have the resources or confidence to speak up, call out the behavior, or make a radical change. This can happen in jobs, but it can also happen in social situations or even in the grocery store.
This book was a reminder to never become complacent, and to try and stay aware of injustices in the moment. More than this, it serves as proof that it’s never too late to change a culture. If this memoir has taught me anything, it’s that it’s better to address things as they happen then to wait for injustices to build up over time before it seems “too late” to act.
Conley, Frances K. Walking out on the Boys / Frances K. Conley. 1st ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. Print.