Polka-Dots, Checks, and Stripes: Does Gender Expression Matter?

03 Mar 2016

By Gabrielle Rieth 

I am soft-spoken and often characterized as “nice,” “sweet,” or “adorable.” I express my gender identity in a way that is traditionally ascribed to females. This combination of characteristics has allowed me to be perceived as non-threatening, accessible, and approachable – all of which have benefitted me when working with new colleagues and when interacting with patients.

However I also recognize that these traits may cause those same colleagues to overlook or underestimate my work ethic. Knowing this, I still do not bother to invest additional energy to correct their behaviors or assumptions about my capabilities. Why?

While my peers are busy assessing my competence from the way I speak or portray my gender, I am focusing on getting ahead in my career.

This was my default internal monologue. I drew inspiration from the #ILookLikeASurgeon campaign and believed my gender has made progress, as it is 2016 and the culture of medicine is changing.

Until recently.

I just completed my second year of medical school and will be beginning the clinical years of my medical training this July. In advance of this transition, our school hosted a student panel featuring graduating M4 students. Some of the wisdom offered by the panel related to strategies for standing out during rounds, but a fair portion of the information offered by the female students pertained to appropriate attire and what would, or would not, be perceived as professional by their senior colleagues.

Obviously there is a standard of attire both genders should adhere to, which many medical schools ingrain in their students; but the gendered commentary provided by the panel causes me to wonder how I will be perceived in the hospital. Will the fact that my professional closet contains subtly floral prints, embellished tops, or lace skirts in addition to the standard uniform of monochromatic pants and blouses detract from my contributions as a member of the medical team? Will I be discounted before I even have a chance to prove myself?

How often have we all, as students and mentors, judged someone based on their appearance, only later to be “surprised” or “astonished” when that same person acts or speaks in a way that contradicts the preformed opinion of them in your consciousness? Professional appearance matters for all genders within medicine, and though the female professional appearance was emphasized on the panel; does this perspective also harm our counterparts as well? How can we stop this cycle of judgment, validation, and awe of our peers – and ourselves – moving forward?

Profile photoGabrielle Rieth, MS, is an M2 at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. She is originally from the Albany, New York area and completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University before migrating to the midwest.

Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author, and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.

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