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).

Q: Could you share some of the reactions you’ve gotten? I did see that Esther Choo, MD – an emergency medicine physician and prominent proponent for gender equity in medicine – highlighted the article on Twitter; are there other highlights, or surprising reactions, or pushback, that you’d like to share?

A: We were thrilled to be the subject of a “tweetorial” by Dr. Choo. It’s impossible to overestimate the boost this gave to the paper. She has over 75,000 Twitter followers, and it was quite impressive to watch the exponential increase in the article’s Altmetrics score after her tweetorial. This brought the article to the attention of people outside our own subspecialty. The experiences we described seem to be familiar to women doctors in every specialty and subspecialty, and also relevant outside medicine. I saw tweets from women lawyers, engineers, and others, many of whom said this sort of behavior is a problem in their own fields.

It’s probably not surprising that the vast majority of reactions came from women. A number of men tweeted the article, though, and recommended it to other men. This sort of #HeForShe support is gratifying. We did get some negative reactions, but there are Migraine Mavens on Twitter and we’ve taken them on.

Q: You offer suggestions for reframing many behaviors that reflect implicit bias. You also offer suggestions for bystanders to challenge these biases and support women who are on the receiving end of the behaviors you call out. Do you think exhibiting more of this kind of solidarity can help change the culture of medicine?

A: I believe many people who witness the behaviors are uncomfortable and would like to help but just don’t know what to say. Often, they are caught off guard. Some of our suggested responses are all-purpose lines that can be effective simply by calling attention to the behavior, for example, “What did you just say?” or “Why would you say something like that?” As Dr. Choo said, “Learn them, say them often.”

It’s critical to remember that problems like this are not in the past. This article gave real examples of things that have happened to real women recently. The sheer number of women who retweeted the article with statements such as, “How many of these have been said to you? Straw poll. I got 9,” demonstrates that behavior like this is common.

I recently received an email that forwarded a message written by a medical assistant. I’ve changed the names, but it otherwise read “Dr. Smith wants this patient to have a nerve block. ... You can schedule them with Abigail or Nancy.” Guess what? Abigail and Nancy are doctors. Not only that, they are Dr. Smith’s true peers in every way imaginable, having been hired at exactly the same time and having exactly the same titles and duties. There seems to be only one reason they are not addressed as doctor while their male colleague is, and that is their gender. So the struggle highlighted by #MyFirstNameIsDoctor is real. Women doctors live it every day.

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