This week I started my surgery sub-internship and within 2 minutes of orientation I was asked the question I dread the most: “so, are you married?” While I do believe this question was asked out of a place of kindness and as an innocent ice-breaker, I can’t help but feel the sting of the implications.
I am currently in the process of applying to residency which in turn has provided fodder for conversation with the physicians I have worked with over the past several months. Most of the conversations start out discussing which specialty I am pursuing (general surgery), then move on to talk about the rigorous training and long hours required to become a surgeon. Invariably the question about being married is raised at some point during this conversation. When I confirm that I am not married, the response typically is something along the line of “oh good, more time to focus on your career”. While I understand that sharing facts about one’s personal life is not uncommon in the workplace, I am consistently caught off guard by where this question falls in conversation. I am never asked if I married or have children when discussing weekend plans or talking about my past. This question is always intricately woven into the discussion of the demanding career I have laid out ahead of me.
As anecdotal evidence to this point, when I walked into orientation a couple days ago this question was provoked when discussing how frequently residents are required to move to train at various hospitals. When the student next to me mentioned he was in fact married, the person guiding the orientation responded saying maybe his wife would be able to travel with him to “take care of the family”. In response to confirming I am unmarried I was told that this would afford me more flexibility in my training.
I can’t help but think does anyone ever ask an accountant if they’re married when discussing their career prospects?
Several years ago I attended a high school graduation party of a family friend’s daughter. Not knowing any other guests at this gathering, I hung out around the snack table making small talk with strangers. I met this friend’s grandmother who was very sweet and began asking me about my career. I excitedly informed her that I had just commissioned in the U.S. Air Force and would be starting medical school in a few weeks. Her response shocked me. With a look of horror on her face she questioned why I didn’t want to marry and have children. I was so confused by her assumption. When did I ever say that I didn’t want to settle down and start a family of my own? I thought we were talking about my career here! I explained to her that I did intend to eventually marry when I met the right person, but that I am looking forward to working on my career in the meantime. She told me that no man wants to sit at home while his wife works her life away and with that she ended the conversation.
Shrugging off this interaction as a rude encounter with a stranger I haven’t thought much about marriage and medicine until I began my clinical rotations. Call me naïve but I’ve never questioned my abilities to do something because I am a woman. I’ve never shied away from the two male dominated career fields I am in, medicine and military and I certainly never thought my gender would play a role in the decision of whether or not I would be hired for a position. Maybe I’ve had a string of bad luck since starting my 3rd year of medical school because I have been shocked at the misogyny I have encountered. I had one attending encourage me to wear skirts and dresses because females “should show their legs off”. I’ve had another attending admit to me that if he were a program director he would avoid hiring female residents because he doesn’t feel they are as committed to their careers as men. I’ve worked with surgeons that only allowed male students to scrub in on cases and I’ve been told that it’s best if the female medical students keep their white coats on so people will believe we are on the same surgical service as the male students. To top it off, I have never noticed my male counterparts be questioned about marriage or children when discussing career prospects.
Later on during my first day at my new hospital I was sitting in a patient’s room discussing his life. An old man, he spoke enthusiastically about his grandson who has been very successful in recent years, earning an advance degree and owning two businesses. He talked about how his grandson lamented dating as many women seemed to only be interested in his finances and success. We joked that his grandson would have better luck if he lied about his career claiming to be a garbage man to find a woman interested in him for the “right” reasons. This made me think back to an article I had read on KevinMD.com a well-known blog amongst those in the medical field. This article, entitled “8 reasons why you should marry a female physician” discusses how a NFL player concealed his career when he met his future wife. This scenario is juxtaposed against two female surgical residents who are friends with the author who lie about their careers stating that they are a dental hygienist and a flight attendant instead. The author then admitted that she “too operate[d] under the assumption that although NFL players might want to hide their occupation because of too much interest, we female physicians hide ours because of lack of interest.”
Never did I imagine that my career choice would make me less desirable as a future spouse. But maybe this author had a point. The U.S. Census Bureau 2014 American Community Survey looked at how career plays into couple pairings. According to the data from 3.5 million respondents, male physicians are most likely to be partnered with physicians, nurses, or elementary school, middle school and post-secondary teachers. Female physicians are most likely to partner with other physicians. This trend is mirrored in other high powered careers, with female lawyers pairing with other lawyers or judges versus male lawyers pairing with lawyers, judges, elementary and middle school teachers, administrative assistants, and those in management.
So what gives?
In recent years there have been more studies investigating the theory of hypergamy. Hypergamy is the idea of “marrying up” or marrying someone of a higher social status than themselves, a term coined in 19th century India when marriage was based on a caste system. This concept is also evident in evolution and the inherent differences in sexual selection. Across many species males select mates based on their ability to give birth to and rear healthy offspring. Females typically select mates based on their ability to protect and provide for the offspring. If we believe evolution still plays a part in mate selection in the modern day it’s not difficult to see why female physicians have a tough time finding a significant other. While a male becomes more desirable with an advance degree and the finances and status that accompany that role, a female becomes less desirable because a demanding career means less time to raise children.
Is it really that simple? Sure, some men are not comfortable having a woman who makes more money than they do or feel insecure dating a woman whose career is more impressive than their own. Dating a physician means being flexible to accommodate chaotic schedules, long hours, overnight call and constant stress. But there have to be some men out there who don’t mind a powerful woman, right?
I am fortunate that I have been able to put myself first for the past 8 years. I have studied abroad, volunteered for incredible organizations, and pursued various hobbies. I am now 25 years old and in my 4th and final year of medical school. I know in a year my life will only become more hectic and my schedule significantly more busy, but I am so unbelievably passionate about my future career. I know that when the time is right I will meet a guy who is not only secure enough to acknowledge and accept my future career, but who encourages me and supports me in my pursuits. I can’t promise I will always be home for dinner or be on time to our dates. I can’t promise that I will not have to move for work or that I won’t have to ask him to sacrifice for my career. I can promise, however, that a busy career doesn’t mean I can’t be an incredible wife and mother one day. I can promise that I will do everything in my power to love and support my future spouse regardless of how busy and tired I may be from a long day in the operating room. I can promise that I will never use my career as an excuse to put my family on the back burner. To me, being a physician and being a wife are not mutually exclusive and I’m determined to prove it.