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    How physicians can respond to workplace sexism


    But our fears of how men will react to being “called out” may be misplaced, with studies showing that confronting sexism can have positive consequences in relationships between men and women. 

    In one study, men who were told that they were making sexist remarks by an unknown female partner reacted positively, often trying to justify or apologize for the remarks, and generally did not react with hostility or anger. In fact, men who were confronted were actually nicer and reported liking the female partner more after having been accused of sexism. [5]

    Acknowledging that women physicians are likely to experience sexism at some point in their training and career is the first step to deal with the problem, followed by formulating a strategy to respond to inappropriate comments.


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    Steven Cohen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in communication, recommends always acknowledging sexist remarks, even though it may feel uncomfortable to do so.

    “I suggest first acknowledging the comment, responding in a controlled way, and then continuing the conversation as though the comment had no emotional impact,” he says.

    So in the case of my friend, simply repeating back the patient’s own words: “You’re saying that if you weren’t married we would be together?” and then responding “it’s not appropriate for you to talk that way to me,” before transitioning back to the medical conversation would have been preferable to ignoring the patient’s remarks. 

    Having been through this experience, my friend feels that she is now better armed against inappropriate remarks in the future. “I have rehearsed what I will say so I won't feel so blindsided if this happens again.” 

    That’s a great idea, says Cohen, although he notes that it is difficult to predict exactly how to respond to any given scenario. “Instead, practice how you will feel in the moment, visualizing yourself in control of the situation.” He also notes that the simple method of repeating back the sexist remark can provide enough of a buffer to allow enough time to think of an appropriate response.


    RELATED: Why do women physicians experience burnout more than men?


    The key to decreasing sexism and gender bias is acknowledging and confronting bias in a calm and controlled manner. And as more women speak up rather than ignoring inappropriate remarks, we will eventually have less problems with sexism in the workplace, as studies repeatedly show that the simple technique of confronting bias helps to improve perceptions and reduce bias in the future.[6]


    [1] JAMA. 2016;315(19):2120-2121. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.2188

    [2] N Engl J Med 1993; 329:1936-1939December 23, 1993DOI: 10.1056/NEJM199312233292607

    [3] CMAJ. 1996 Jun 1; 154(11): 1657–1665.

    Rebekah Bernard MD
    Dr Bernard was a National Health Care Scholar and served at a Federally Qualified Health Center in Immokalee, Florida for six years ...


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