Unpacking the ‘insult’ of being called a nurse as a female doctor” in training, the peer-reviewed online publication for medical students


It’s a common scenario: a medical student and a resident walk into a patient’s room together, and the patient automatically assumes that the man is the doctor and the woman is the nurse. Despite the fact that more women than men enrolled in US medical schools in 2019, female medical students, residents, and even attending physicians are far more likely to be mistaken for nurses than their male counterparts — women of color, even more so. As a medical student myself, I like to joke that if I had a dollar every time someone at the hospital called me a nurse, I could pay off all my student loans.

It’s a problem. Certainly, with the myriad of roles and responsibilities in a hospital setting, having your position constantly confused with another is not only frustrating but can also compromise patient care due to poor communication between staff members. ‘team. However, I get a little concerned when I hear conversations between female doctors say something like this: “…and then he called me a nurse! Can you imagine? Uh, excuse me, I didn’t do four years of medical school to be called a nurse.

Can we stop for a moment and ask why being called a nurse is insulting to female doctors and female medical students?

It’s not just because it’s factually incorrect; rather, it is an incorrect assumption based on a stereotype. A two-second glance at my badge might confirm my role at the hospital, but a lot of people don’t even take that long, which is enough to justify my annoyance. Moreover, the convenience of the stereotype arose from the assumption that a woman in a lab coat could not have completed the extensive training required to become a doctor. This, of course, is offensive and needs to be addressed.

But what really bothers me about this scenario, in addition to the often incorrect assumptions made about a woman’s title in the hospital, is the implicit notion that female doctors work harder than their nurse counterparts to challenge gender stereotypes. It is believed that the “successful” women in medicine, the ones breaking glass ceilings and closing gender gaps in the workplace, are doctors, not nurses. For example, as Dr. Megan Lemay writes in a article originally published on KevinMD, “To me, I feel like we’ve just broken the shell of this previously male-dominated field. Being called a “nurse” reminds me of the huge gender gap that I have yet to cross. Breaking down gender stereotypes will take more than outnumbering men in our field. I doubt many people in medicine today need convincing that female doctors face an absurd amount of sexism throughout their training (but here’s a article on the subject anyway).

But we must realize that the field of nursing also faces challenges of gender discrimination, albeit in different ways than those seen in medicine. Unlike medicine, nursing has always been female dominated. And these women in nursing have had their work cut out to make their profession what it is today. Nursing has grown from an unskilled position requiring no formal education before the 19th century to an extremely diverse field with opportunities for degrees in advanced practice, research and teaching.

Unfortunately, despite all these advances, nurses still struggle with gender bias in the workplace. The very fact that nurses are confronted judgment and stigma on their pursuit of a “feminine career” speaks volumes about the perception of female-dominated professions. Due to the traditional perception of women as subordinate, particularly in health care, nurses often face disrespect and discrimination with doctors. And yet, despite the predominance of women in nursing, gender bias remains within the field, not just outside it.

Just as female doctors lament the lack of women in leadership positions in medicine, surveys have shown that nurses in the UK are about twice as likely to occupy certain management positions in the hospital. One way or another, nurses even fight against a gender pay gapaccording to the 2018 Nursing Salary Research Report. Suffice to say that even if they do not enter a male-dominated field, nurses – as professional women – are nonetheless fight against gender stereotypes as are their female physician counterparts, in the hope that their voices will be heard and respected.

As female doctors and future doctors, when we are mistaken for nurses, it is frustrating to feel that our work to enter the field of medicine is not recognized. But this frustration should not mask the fact that nurses, too, are fighting their own battles with gender discrimination. Women in Medicine and Nursing: Let’s break glass ceilings together without getting down. Let’s stop making assumptions and start treating each other with the respect we all deserve as members of a healthcare team.

Jessa Fogel (1 Posts)

Contributing author

Vanderbilt University School of Medicine

Jessa is a sophomore medical student at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, TN, class of 2022. In 2017, she graduated from Dartmouth College with a Bachelor of Arts in Biology with a minor in International Studies. She enjoys running, reading and painting in her spare time. In the future, Jessa would like to pursue a career in general surgery or OB/GYN


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