Dr. No: Working to Change The Image of Women Leaders and Professionals

Black female physicians have started #WhatADoctorLooksLike to challenge the stereotypes of doctors in this country.

Black female physicians have started #WhatADoctorLooksLike to challenge the stereotypes of doctors in this country.

What comes first? A movement or a hashtag?

Tens of thousands have shared and responded to #WhatADoctorLooksLike, as the result of an African American female doctor’s recent offer to help an  unresponsive passenger and the flight attendant refusal to believe she was a doctor.

“Dr. Tamika Cross, a Houston OB-GYN, last Sunday posted on Facebook her ridiculous experience on a Delta flight to Detroit, where a flight attendant refused to believe that she was a doctor and blocked her from giving aid to a man who had become unresponsive. The attendant could not believe Dr. Cross, but had no problem believing a white man who also claimed to have medical credentials on the flight,” writes Angels Bronner Helm in The Root.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. So what does it say about the narrow and untrue vision of doctors, lawyers and leaders in all industries and disciplines as white and male? Why is it that women leaders appear to be invisible?

“In response, hundreds of black female doctors have used the hashtag #WhatADoctorLooksLike on Twitter and Facebook to fight the prevailing attitude that physicians are only white males,” writes Greg Hadley in the Charlotte Observer.

“Delta has since responded in a statement that it is investigating the incident. The airline said three individuals identified themselves as doctors on the flight, but only one was able to produce documentation of medical training,” Hadley writes. “But that hasn’t stopped some from saying they plan to boycott the airline, while others have said Cross’s experience is a common one in the medical world.”

In response to the hashtag gaining momentum, Dr. Ashley Denmark posted about her recent experience on a Delta flight from Seattle to Hawaii in the blog, Melanin in Medicine.

“As an African American female physician, I am too familiar with this scenario.  Despite overcoming and excelling academically and obtaining the title of Dr. in front of my name, I still get side-eye glances when I introduce myself as Dr. Denmark,” she writes.

“Commonly, I’m mistaken for an assistant, janitor, secretary, nurse, student, etc even when I have my white coat on; I’m called these names more frequently than I would like instead of Dr. Denmark. In these situations, we are often taught to be graceful and smile in the face of adversity out of fear of repercussions such as being viewed as ‘hostile, ‘too sensitive’, or my favorite ‘you are misinterpreting the situation.’”

Dr. Jennifer A Okwerekwu writes in Stat, “I’ve been in Cross’s shoes. Many black doctors have. Two days before Cross’s ordeal, I was performing a neurological exam on a patient, testing her strength and her reflexes in her arms and legs. In the middle of the physical, a food services employee walked into the room and interrupted the exam to take the patient’s meal order.”

“Black women physicians are standing in solidarity with Dr. Cross with the #WhataDoctorLooksLike hashtag on social media. These accomplished women are striking back on the overt and subtle discrimination they face, by letting the world know they’ve worked hard for their credentials,” according to ForHarriet.

The lack of diversity in medical schools in this country can be contributing to the implicit bias against who a doctor can be.

Lack of diversity in medical schools can be contributing to the implicit bias against who a doctor can be #taketheleadwomen

“Women are still woefully underrepresented in the higher echelons of medicine and science,” said Wendy Rheault, university provost, PT, PhD,  at the recent Women in Medicine and Science Symposium, “Gender Bias Under the Microscope,” according to the Chicago Tribune.  “She added that a lack of gender balance has been found to adversely affect both the quality of professional practice and team productivity.”

Dr. G. Richard Olds, president of St. George’s University in Grenada, wrote recently in St. Louis American: “Three in four med students come from families with incomes in the top 40 percent of the population. Medicine’s diversity crisis isn’t just cosmetic. It’s harming patients. About half of medical students are white males.  Ethnic minorities comprise just 4 percent of medical school faculty and 8 percent of American doctors. “

Olds writes, “Consequently, boosting the diversity of the physician workforce isn’t just a feel-good mission. It’s crucial to improving the quality of care, especially for at-risk Americans — and can have tangible, positive consequences for patients and doctors.”

As female professionals, women leaders and entrepreneurs, what are strategies to not only raise awareness, but automate respect and acknowledgment?  The challenges for women, and particularly for women of color, exist in all arenas, as can be seen in the momentum gathering from an earlier movement, #WhatALeaderLooksLike.

Recently, “the National Women’s Business Council teamed up with the Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy and the international women’s business collective Walker’s Legacy” to research motivations for women of color launching businesses, according to The Story Exchange.

What they found is women went into business for themselves “to forge professional pathways free of discrimination — to open doors not only for themselves, but others as well. The women ‘explicitly express the desire to support and uplift their communities in the process,’ the group’s final report says.”

The report continues, “Yet while black women are starting businesses at unprecedented rates and for often selfless reasons, they also face a host of challenges that largely stem from sexism and racism. For example, they have an especially difficult time accessing capital to start up and to expand. The result? Black women may be starting lots of companies, but they aren’t able to grow them as effectively as their white and male entrepreneurial counterparts.”

In response, Esther Morales, executive director of the National Women’s Business Council, tells Next City: “Governments can play a role in this approach too. Morales points to what she says is the ‘first of its kind’ city program directed toward women entrepreneurs in Atlanta called the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative. It links 15 women-owned businesses with mentors, financial assistance and access to city-funded technologies to help them make their product and business plan as sharp as possible for a 15-month period. With its emphasis on diversity, the program is partly designed to cater to Georgia’s status as having more black women-owned businesses than any other U.S. state.”

According to Next City, “Other wide-casting recommendations made by the report: encouraging black women to become accredited angel investors, linking black women entrepreneurs to local business associations and, as any self-aware report should suggest, more research into these matters. But even though this is the first step in what the NWBC hails as a years -long process to outline the struggles women entrepreneurs from all backgrounds face, Morales says it’s enough to know more needs to be done now to correct the gender skew that’s tilting the business world.”

These results are confirmed in other research.

A new Center for American Progress report “shows that African American households and Hispanic households have lower rates of business ownership than white households. Single women, additionally, have lower rates of business ownership compared with single men, and both have lower rates than married households,” according to American Progress.

“There are structural barriers that are holding back people of color and women from becoming entrepreneurs, beyond just differences in income and wealth that are correlated with business ownership, and this exacerbates economic inequality faced by these groups and holds back American business dynamism,” said Kate Bahn, Economist at CAP.

“CAP’s report focuses on the challenges to entrepreneurship that people of color and women face and explores the role that lower levels of income and wealth play for people of color and women in their ability to start a business, as well as structural barriers, including a lack of access to informal entrepreneurial training and networks and more difficulty securing startup capital and business loans. The report also looks at broader economic factors, such as aggregate demand and competition, as well as gender inequity and other basic public policy challenges, which may also affect people of color and women more or differently,” Bahn writes.

The report continues, “An analysis using Panel Study of Income Dynamics data reveals that African Americans are 5 percent less likely to have a business in their household compared with white households—even at the same levels of income, wealth, and education—and Hispanic households are 6.7 percent less likely. Single women are 3.9 percent less likely to have a business compared with single men.”

In her recent speech at Variety’s Power of Women event, director and Hollywood force Ava DuVernay recently said, “Our work is a mirror of what we believe.”

Speaking on the necessity for diversity in all fields, including the production of movies and creative work, she added, “What we put on screen is widely, monumentally important. But the way we go about our work is also important. For me, that includes representation and our representatives who speak for us in the industry.”

We continue to need to create hashtags and memes to counter the stereotypes #taketheleadwomen

Perhaps until the images we see representing a diversity of women leaders in all professions, we will continue to find the need to create hashtags and memes to counter the stereotypes and the predominant narrative.

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon www.micheleweldon.com