Commentary: Most of my medical colleagues are women. The 'Google memo' writer has them wrong

In response to Google’s firing of James Damore, the author of the now-infamous “Google memo,” members of the alt-right are planning a March on Google to protest what they see as the company’s incursion on Damore’s free speech and right to dubiously argue that women’s biology prevents them from succeeding in Silicon Valley. Beyond Damore’s free speech rights - and the quality of the evidence he relies on to argue for the inherent superiority of men in tech - Damore’s memo depicts a world that in no way corresponds to my reality or to my experience of gender dynamics in the workplace.

I am a man who works in a field in which women make up the majority of the workforce: pediatrics.

For the last generation, the medical profession has been turning more female: In Canada, where I practice, 60.4 percent of physicians under the age of 35 are women. In contrast, among physicians 65 and older, the percentage of women is 20 percent. In the United States, the story is much the same. Data from the American Association of Medical Colleges shows that in 1966, 7 percent of medical school graduates were women. In 2014, that number was almost 48 percent. More than two-thirds of board certified pediatricians in the United states are women; in Canada, it’s well over half. The nurses, respiratory therapists, physiotherapists, psychologists and other medical professionals I work with are also overwhelmingly women. As a young pediatrician who is also a man, I am a relative rarity.

If Damore is to be believed, women seek out jobs in “social or artistic areas” and are proven to be more prone to “neuroticism” and thus to “higher anxiety” and “lower stress tolerance.” It’s worth remembering that the rise of women in medicine over the last generation has taken place in a profession renowned for its exacting and rigorous training in basic sciences, bench science and gruelling clinical work. Although physicians may often get too much credit from the general public for the work they do (especially compared to other equally stressful, lower-status and, yes, female-dominated jobs in health care), the hours, stress and high stakes of medical training and practice are undeniable. If women as a group lack the qualities required to do the job, how are they thriving in medicine?

Damore cites men’s “higher drive for status” as responsible for their success in tech. But what he attributes to their striving is really just about their privilege. In spite of the changing gender dynamics in medicine, and the fact that I am often in the minority as a man, I still am so clearly favored over my female colleagues. I receive an almost automatic credibility pass when I come to a new ward or work environment, where the worst I might experience is some gentle teasing at the hands of more experienced staff. My female counterparts, on the other hand, describe intense scrutiny and second-guessing from their superiors and others, and a recurrent struggle to prove their competence and earn trust.

The women I know and with whom I’ve trained have shared with me countless experiences of condescending behavior and comments at the hands not only of other professionals but also of patients. The same condescension seems to be commonplace at companies like Google: If Damore’s memo is any indication, then at least some Google employees hold highly ungenerous views of the women they work with and their abilities.

My female colleagues must endure comments on their appearance and mood from which I am spared. Being told you “look tired” after 30 hours of working in the intensive care unit is a routine humiliation for woman physicians. The same goes for being told, in formal feedback evaluations, to “be less critical” or to “smile more.” Patients (or in my case their parents) never tell me I am sweet, or cute, or ask me how old I am, all situations experienced on many occasions by my wife, who is also a physician. More than once, when seeing a patient with an attending who is a woman and not visibly older than I am, the patient has embarrassingly assumed that I am the doctor and my superior is my student. This evidence is anecdotal, but it is also nearly universal among my colleagues - and we work in a large, diverse city in a progressive nation.

Damore argues that “women on average look for more work-life balance.” He fails to acknowledge that this is because they have no choice, if they want to simultaneously have families and a career. The fact that women in medicine who want to be mothers must find time to have children, often at the culmination of their specialty training, or in the first years of their careers, is a tremendous challenge that I will never face. During my job search over the past year, potential employers made it clear to me how great it would be to have me on board because I was a man and would not be taking maternity leave. Because the take-off in women’s participation in the medical workforce is just about one generation old, there is a lack of women leaders and mentors in medicine. This creates the dynamic of older men telling younger women how to be and what to do.

If I had to paraphrase Damore’s views on the differences between men and women, it would be something like “men are rational thinkers and women are intuitive people-pleasers.” That’s nonsense. Two main things allow me to perform well in my job. The first is an ability to see the big picture, an intuition referred to as clinical judgment. The second is my communication skills, which allow me to lean on colleagues and support staff when I am in tough situations, to cultivate an openness that makes my patients feel cared for and my colleagues feel comfortable correcting me and offering suggestions. These are far from cold, analytical, systematizing qualities that we are told ought to be typical of men. My peers possess their own unique combination of skills, which allow them to thrive and excel in their work. We do the same job but we are all different. (It also just so happens that the most systematic, rigorous, collected physicians I know and emulate are women, almost without exception.)

Medicine has made huge strides in the inclusion of women in the workforce, but even equal representation, or being the majority doesn’t guarantee that biases and systematic discrimination are undone. I can only imagine what it’s like at Google, Uber, or at large firms in other sectors where women are still drastically underrepresented. Damore scarcely mentions the way office power dynamics affect women. To succeed in spite of such impediments is the mark, if anything, of higher drive and tolerance for stress among female physicians.

When I read the Google memo, what struck me as profoundly incorrect is not necessarily the assumption that men and women are different. We all experience those differences, and to deny them reflexively is dishonest. The problem is to see difference as an endpoint, an anchor for the status quo, rather than as a simple fact of life beyond which individuals and society can move in the pursuit of other values: inclusion and fairness, of course, but also excellence. In medicine, and even more so in pediatrics, women are assuming the leadership of a profession that requires a combination of scientific reasoning, analytic thinking, physical endurance, and calm under pressure.

So don’t tell me they can’t code.

Samuel Freeman is a community pediatrician in Montreal, Canada. He is aformer pediatric chief resident at the Montreal Children’s Hospital.