Bringing focus to the issue: Dr. Elizabeth Loder on gender in medicine


The recently published “Eleven Things Not to Say to Your Female Colleagues,” has sparked debate on medical Twitter. Senior author Elizabeth Loder, MD, developed the content collaboratively with members of the Migraine Mavens, a private Facebook group of North American headache practitioners and researchers.

Elizabeth Loder, MD, chief of the Division of Headache and Pain at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Dr. Elizabeth Loder

In an interview, Dr. Loder, chief of the headache division in the neurology department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, and professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, Boston, shared the background and context for the article.

Q: Could you explain the impetus for putting this together? How did you arrive at the chart that is the center of the article?

A: In June, I gave the Seymour Solomon lecture at the American Headache Society annual scientific meeting. Because it was an award lecture, I was able to choose the topic. I decided to talk about gender-based problems faced by women in medicine, with a focus on the headache field.

These problems include sexual harassment, hurtful sex-based comments, gender-based barriers to career advancement, as well as the difficulties women face in getting institutions or professional societies to pay attention to these problems.

I wanted to provide real, recent examples of troubling behavior or comments, so I appealed to the Migraine Mavens group to describe their own experiences. I was not expecting the response I got. Not only did people post many examples of such behavior in the group, but I also received many private messages describing things that were so hurtful or private that the woman involved did not even feel comfortable posting them in our group.

I ended up with plenty of real-life vignettes. The title of my talk was “Time’s Up: Headache Medicine in the #MeToo Era.” Shortly after the talk, a member of the group posted this:

“Oh, Dr. Elizabeth Loder, how timely was your talk yesterday, and we have so much further to progress. ...

“Just now, I had this experience: I have been recently selected for a leadership position within AHS and I was talking to one of our male colleagues about it. ... He expressed his doubt in my ability to serve this role well.

“I thought it was because I am early in my career, and as I was reassuring him that I would reach out to him and others for mentorship, he then said ‘AND you have two small children. ... You don’t have time for this.’ ”

There was lively discussion in the group about how this poster could have responded and what bystanders could have said. One of the group members, Clarimar Borrero-Mejias, MD, a pediatric neurologist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, pointed out that many men and women might benefit from knowing what kinds of things not to say to other colleagues. I suggested that we should take some of the problems we had discussed and write a paper, and that she should be the first author. We then crowdsourced the scenarios to be included.

The grid format came immediately to mind because I know that tables and charts and boxes are good ways to organize and present information. We also wanted to keep the article short and accessible, and thus the idea of “Ten Things” was born. At the end of our work, though, someone posted the vignette about the salary discussion. It was amazing to me how many women, even in this day and age, are still told that men deserve more money because of their family or other responsibilities. We thus decided that it had to be 11, not 10, things.

The article was possible only because of the supportive reaction of the editor of Headache, Thomas Ward, MD. He not only published the piece rapidly, but also agreed to make it free so that anyone who wanted to could access the entire article without hitting a paywall (Headache. 2019 Sep 26. doi: 10.1111/head.13647).

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