TAKE NO PRISONERS
When I interviewed for admission to the College of Medicine in the University of the Philippines in 1962, the Secretary of the College, who was my interviewer, asked me,
“Why are you wasting a slot in the College when it can be filled by a young man, unlike you?You will just get married and then stay home and not practice.”
Before I could come up with an answer, he commented further,
“Why don’t you work in a bank or become a stewardess, there you will meet rising and successful young men and you could get married and stay home to raise your family.”
Back then, I was nineteen and I didn’t know what hit me. I felt a cold shiver, my mind went blank, my heart leapt into my throat, I couldn’t breathe. I was confused. Was that a compliment? In those days women who worked as bank tellers or airline stewardesses, were beautiful and alluring mixed Spanish mestizas, who were sought after in marriage by accomplished or rich and famous young men. Or, was I denied admission? And my life passed before my eyes in a few seconds as over and done with. I was overcome with fear but managed a trite response,
“Oh no sir, I assure you, I’m committed to practice medicine and serve humanity!”
I got in. Years later, I learned that women with higher GPA’s were denied admission in favor of men with lower achievements. Out of approximately 800 applicants to the College, only a little over 100 were accepted, and only a third of women got in. And when finally I could understand that what happened to me was gender discrimination, I became livid. That was a defining moment that influenced my attitude about how I was treated as an individual. I developed a keen alertness to how gender discrimination was practiced in subtle ways which made it difficult to confront.
At the hospital men and women staff consistently made comments about my appearance, in admiring ways,
“My how pretty you look,”
“That color looks good on you.”
“What lovely shoes (or any item on my person), where do you shop?”
And the older staff members would refer to me as Sugar, Sweetie, Honey or Dear, and would chat me up and take my time with stories of their grandchildren or special recipes.
These were on the surface compliments or endearing attitudes but unprofessional. My male colleagues were always addressed as Doctor, and not routinely given attention for their appearance. Their time was respected, not intruded upon by chats about recipes or shopping. Women especially were the ones guilty of trivializing my professional status in this manner. It seemed men and women alike saw me as a woman first before they saw me as a doctor. Patients would refer to me as Miss or Mrs as I examined them as their doctor, and in clinic settings where I supervised male nurse practitioners, it was assumed I was the nurse. When patients take up too much time asking questions about my treatment recommendations, I realized it was not for their information but to test my knowledge and competence. A few patients were beyond any assumptions, and had asked for male doctors directly.
I was one of twelve doctors, and the only woman, chosen by the hospital for a 4-day Outward-bound morale building and corporate bonding program, held in the wilderness of North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain. The activities were familiar adventures in my Philippine childhood, where I swung from mango trees, climbed coconut trees, swam in the ocean, dove for treasures in sunken Japanese ships, and drew lines in the sand to settle juvenile disputes. So falling with a safety harness from forty feet and walking a beam at twenty feet, mountain hiking and rowing white water rapids, were familiar to me.
This exercise did not fulfill the corporate morale building aimed by the hospital for me, but it opened my eyes to how I viewed gender attitudes.
I was a victim of my own gender prejudice.
On the first day, the hospital medical director assumed leadership by organizing camp jobs and assignments. I was conscious about not being relegated to setting up camp, cooking, and cleaning duties. Later on I realized that I took two of the most difficult tasks in the program, which none of the men vied for.
Hiking to our destination in the mountain with only a compass (no smart phones with GPS in the early 80’s) to guide us in the wilderness, and
Captain our raft down the class ll-lll white water rapids of the Nantahala river on our last day.
When the group returned, the effusiveness and awe I received bewildered and bothered me. Everyone, men and women, from management to orderlies, were just so tickled and proud of me that I made it. I guess I was expected to fail, being a woman, whereas it was assumed the men would make it. Interestingly, one man withdrew after day one, without comment, as participation was voluntary. I did not feel free to withdraw, I did not feel free to decline the responsibilities assigned to me, I did not feel free to ask for privacy and endured sleeping in a common tent with the men and doing my grooming and hygiene tasks before them, I did not feel free to chose the easy task considered woman’s work, the cleaning, cooking, and serving, I did not feel free to ask for adjustment of the backpack weight I carried as I weighed half of the men but carried the same burden as they did.
I volunteered for tasks I truly did not want but to avoid being assigned “women’s work”. I executed them well but I felt under pressure and was fearful of failing. I had been prejudiced about gender roles and I made choices with that paradigm informing my decisions. When I was a girl and free of this gender paradigm, I chose activities because I liked them, or it was fun, or because I wanted to challenge my ability. I enjoyed the full experience with exhilaration and freedom of adventure. There was no pressure because I chose freely and there was no role expectation as to how I should perform. If I were climbing a coconut tree and fell, I didn’t judge myself failing. From each fall, I learned how to climb a coconut tree consistently. A fall was an opportunity to learn. Choosing based on gender paradigm is stressful. If one chose the expected role activity it limits one’s possibilities, if one chose the opposite, it is limiting as well. Men and women perpetuate gender prejudice, many are unaware of it.
As I said, when I realized that I was a traumatized victim of gender prejudice in that admission interview, I was livid. I wanted to turn around my position of victim to empowered survivor. I meticulously planned a confrontation at the homecoming celebration of the College of Medicine on our class ’67 Silver Jubilee. I envisioned a contrite acknowledgement of the wrong I experienced and a personal apology. Alas, thunder was stolen from me when I learned he was dead. I decided I will make a cause of this and wrote about it in our alumni journal. The response I got was totally unexpected. The then president of our Alumni Society chided me for bringing up the subject and maligning the College and the dead Professor’s reputation and demanded my apology. Several women alumni came forward that they experienced the same thing, but that was in the past, why was I bringing it up? They reminded me that those men were products of their time and their behavior was in keeping with the cultural norms. It was therefore to be accepted, they implied, when women were treated this way, besides, you got in, and you are a doctor, what are you complaining about?
I was confused, bothered and bewildered. I felt guilty. Was I wrong? Then again, I became livid. What about me? Does experiencing a near death experience, when your entire life flashes in milliseconds before your eyes and you despair about a hopeless future, because someone who holds power over you decides what you should become because you are woman, count for something? For dashing my dream was like a death sentence to me then. Does that count for some understanding and acknowledgment too, some apology?
I am no longer livid about that incident. I grew up since of course, and learned to recognize the many faces of gender discrimination. I have channeled my passion to exposing its many guises so no man or woman would remain a prisoner of its paradigm.