Tone deaf?

Dear Labby,

As a first-year woman medical student, I have appreciated my medical school’s efforts to mitigate unconscious bias. However, today in my pathology lab I had an experience that made me feel belittled and uncomfortable.

One of my lab’s preceptors, Dr. XY, an older faculty member, had come to my group’s table to help us through the lab. He posed a question to the table, which I answered. When he did not acknowledge my answer, I repeated myself. Again, he did not acknowledge me. Eventually, one of my male peers answered the question with the same answer that I had provided, and Dr. XY commended him for the correct answer.

I realize this is a minor incident, but I found it unacceptable. I expect my professors, especially very senior faculty members like Dr. XY, to foster an open learning environment. Incidents like this can make a learning community feel unwelcoming.

I welcome your advice about what, if anything, I should do.


Dear Belittled,

You are fortunate to be attending a medical school where the climate is one of mutual respect and where programs are in place to mitigate unconscious bias.
Your issues seem to be both getting credit for the right answer and concern that this professor’s behavior is at odds with the school’s welcoming climate.

Based upon Labby’s experience, some senior male faculty members welcome medical student diversity, including the fact that women are now 50% of the class, but some still live in the “good old days” when women were a small fraction of the class. You need to consider possible causes of Dr. XY’s behavior and possible ways to address them that are consistent with mutual respect principles.

You could bring this incident to your Title IX coordinator, who is responsible for gender equity in education in an institution that receives federal funds. The coordinator can help you decide whether this rises to the level of denial of equal education. Your concern could be directed to the dean for medical education, who has experience in dealing with these sorts of challenges. It’s possible a different professor could be assigned to your lab group, and then a conversation could be had with Dr. XY at the end of the course about his behavior.

Labby also suggests another possibility. Since you describe Dr. XY as “senior,” he may be losing hearing with age. Because the ability to hear the upper registers—where your voice most likely resides—is lost first, perhaps it’s simply that he could hear the male student’s answer but not yours. When you next encounter Dr. XY, look for a hearing aid and be alert for other incidents suggesting impaired hearing, rather than bias.
Your sensitivity to being heard is important for your student role and school climate. Labby urges you to carry this sensitivity with you throughout the coming years as you move into your role as a physician.


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