Sexism is alive and well when the competence of vascular surgeons is judged by what they wear on holiday

Twitter/@ladaisysanchez Straight off the bat, I might as well admit that I’m not an avid


Straight off the bat, I might as well admit that I’m not an avid reader of the Journal of Vascular Surgery, but I’d be tempted to make a wild assumption (”ass”, I know… “you and me”) about its typical contents: veins, arteries, lymphatic vessels and ideas backed up by scrupulous peer-reviewed research with which to maintain the respective healthy functioning of each.

Which is why I was surprised to read about a study published in said esteemed journal on something quite different: the “prevalence of unprofessional social media content among young vascular surgeons.” The study claimed to be concerned with the impact a surgeon’s public social media account might have on their professional reputation and a prospective patient’s choice of surgeon. What resourceful use of scarce scientific funding.

The scientists involved, from the Boston Medical Centre and Salem Health Vascular and Endovascular Surgery, compiled a list of 480 graduating trainees and screened their publicly available social media activity, taking into account any “clearly unprofessional content” including unlawful behaviour and profanities about colleagues, as well as any “potentially unprofessional content” including “holding/consuming alcohol,” discussion of any “controversial topics” and “inappropriate attire”. The latter was categorised as “pictures in underwear, provocative Halloween costume and provocative posing in bikinis/swimwear.” Six out of seven of the study’s authors responsible for defining what was “inappropriate attire” behaviour were – and I’m sure this comes as a huge shock – male.

In response to the publication of the research, female surgeons began sharing photographs of themselves across social media wearing bikinis using the hashtag #MedBikini. “I am a woman in medicine who loves to travel to tropical locations and dress accordingly,” captioned one. “I will not wear my white coat and scrubs to Hawaii.”

Other women began sharing the sexism they’d experienced at work, contrasted with the professionalism experienced by their male colleagues. The journal has since apologised and pledged to take “resolute steps to improve our review process and increase diversity of our editorial boards”. But that’s not really the point, is it?

Hastily making apologies after the fact is rather less effective in tackling diversity than simply not operating in a sexist manner in the first place. A lack of “diversity” also feels like a feeble attempt at an excuse when we’re talking about half of the population.

Although only 20 per cent of surgeons in the UK are women, a figure that drops to 8 per cent for vascular surgeons, the journal’s review board is clearly not representative of the profession, let alone aspirational or attempting to lead change, given their response. Even if there weren’t many female peer reviewers available for this paper, you’d hope that by now men at the top of their professional careers would be capable of understanding that categorising women on the perceived “inappropriateness” of their clothes isn’t really the done thing anymore. It’s not as though we’ve kept it quiet that we’re been judged more harshly than our male peers for the last 2,000 years.

We know that before girls can even speak, they are pigeonholed into “female” careers while most of the STEM workforce are portrayed as male (and usually white). To battle against the structural patriarchy of a profession that may see women as a distraction, only to finally make it as a consultant level but then be written off by your colleagues for daring to wear a two piece on the beach and then share your holiday photographs might be quite enough to explain those low numbers.

It’s more than just a case of tokenistic representation. Not having women at the top of medicine is a significant contributing factor in the dismissal of female health issues, with conditions such as endometriosis often taking years to be correctly diagnosed. Female pain is not equal.

The study into bikini-wearing surgeons is not an anomaly. Employers just can’t seem to leave the matter of women’s clothing alone. Just last week an employment law firm released a study that found a third of women to have been asked to dress in a more sexually appealing way or put more make-up on for video calls while working remotely, as if dealing with a pandemic and the lion’s share of the childcare wasn’t enough to be dealing with right now.

When men enter the workplace, they might shave and iron their shirt, but they don’t worry if their forearms might provoke a sexualised outburst from a colleague or if their visible kneecaps could disenchant their boss to promote them.

When it comes to the absurd list of improprieties around clothing, there are other questions we should be asking. Like why does our culture encourage women to post photographs in their underwear on social media years after we tore down the sexist tradition of page three? And why is our swimwear, which usually contains rather more fabric than men’s togs, considered provocative in the slightest?

Social media has immeasurably changed the way we interact and the way we present ourselves to others. Ten years ago, professionals would be less likely to post photographs of their personal lives in the public sphere. Today, social media is how we share our lives with friends and family, conduct research, even how we secure new work. Isn’t it high time we adapt? It’s one thing to penalise someone for posting offensive comments online, but a holiday snap on a social platform has no bearing whatsoever on a doctor’s ability to perform vascular surgery.

If the teams at the Boston Medical Centre and Salem Health Vascular and Endovascular Surgery are desperate for some social research to get on with, I’d suggest a much more interesting study would be to question the motives behind any prospective patient who would rather continue to suffer life-threatening health issues than to go under the scalpel of someone they’ve seen in an outfit they deem to be provocative.

Is sexism in 2020 really still that pervasive? Sadly, I know the answer – and so do all the medics posting bikini shots this week.

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