A female reader changed my viewpoint by raising some great points
Emily contacted me in the summer of 2005 to ask for my advice about whether she should study medicine or nursing. I wrote to her a few days ago (late January 2008) to say that I had finally posted this Women in Medicine section that addressed the questions in her original message. In response, she sent the following:
Your Women in Medicine discussion made me grateful for my ability to read critically and think for myself, but there certainly were some interesting ideas and viewpoints in it that I had never thought about before, at least not in that way. I don't really see the point in getting into discussions about whether men or women are better. It's like asking whether black or white is better—it's just two ends of the same spectrum and in the end, I think we're all shades of grey anyway. And besides which, difference doesn't actually have to imply better or worse—it can just be different!
I have two points that spring to mind that I can't quite resist bringing up:
1. When I got to your list of things you have achieved in your spare time I was dying of boredom before I got to number 4 and just skimmed over/skipped the rest. I enjoy my spare time immensely and just because I don't always come away from it with some result or invention doesn't make it any less worthwhile for me personally. So I'd rather bake cookies or read a good book or enjoy a friendship, than develop new techniques of fractional multiplication. I don't really think that makes me a less worthwhile or productive person; it just means I derive enjoyment from different kinds of things, and if we aren't here on this planet to enjoy the time given to us, then ultimately, what the hell is the point?
2. Secondly, in one breath you are saying that a woman can't "have it all"—i.e., be an exceptional doctor, good mother, and maintain a happy relationship/household/social life, and then in the next breath you are saying how you not only sacrificed everything to be a super doctor, you also developed 800+ inventions, became some kind of super cinnamon roll baker and pretty much anything under the sun that exists, you're good at. So who's the one trying to "have it all"? In my opinion, your list of what you have achieved in your life gives me hope that it is possible for me to be and do everything I hope to in this life—just in my case, substitute "super mom" for "super inventor guy" to accompany "dedicated and knowledgeable doctor," and I'd say our aspirations and ambitions are pretty well similar.
Personally, I don't think women achieve less than men, I think they achieve different things. I think the issue is that women's achievements are often less tangible than men's. You can pick a light bulb up in your hands and use it and go "wow this is cool" but how do you quantify the influence your mother has had on your life or the impact well-developed relationships have on society as a whole? I would like to add the caveat here that these are obviously wide generalizations. Perhaps it is better to say "achievements that are perceived to be feminine or masculine." Girls play with Barbies and boys pull apart Tonka trucks—maybe inventing some kind of robot to mow my lawn doesn't fill me with thrilled passion, so sue my female (yet undeniably pert) ass. If it does excite you, then I'm happy for you and glad you can pursue that. Just don't think it makes you a better or more productive or worthwhile person than I.
And one more thing: I find the man in the business suit more attractive than the one in the road worker's dungarees because I can't love someone I don't respect and I can't respect someone whose level of ambition isn't similar to my own. The man in the business suit is more likely to have some aspirations in life. Money represents a mindset. I can't imagine anything more boring, stifling and degrading than dedicating my life to spending someone else's money. And no, I am not ugly! Women who aren't inventing the next space shuttle in their spare time are not "squandering their potential" anymore than you have squandered your potential to be a husband and a father. They are simply making a different choice in what they enjoy and what they hold value in for their lives. Different. Neither is the better or the worse choice. In fact, I'm glad there are people in the world of both sexes who make both choices!
Anyway, I'm going to stop there and let go of my irritation regarding some of the viewpoints you express. Lets rejoice in our difference, for it has certainly helped me clarify my own viewpoints on a lot of things!
As a side note, I am about to start med school in a month's time! :-) I am also divorced — which happened a while ago and had nothing to do with my desire to study Medicine. I don't know if it's possible for me to "have all" that I want to be and do and have in life, but I know that the one sure way of guaranteeing that I won't have it is to not even try. Forgive me if that's one sacrifice I'm not willing to make.
Well, anyway, if you made it this far I'll be highly impressed! :-) Thanks for helping me clarify in my own mind my dedication and commitment to studying Medicine (and everything else! :-)
Answer by Kevin Pezzi, MD: Hi Emily,
I loved your cogent and compelling reply! What a breath of fresh air! You raised some great points and really made me think. You did a SUPERB job of presenting the alternative viewpoint. You even convinced me that I am wrong on some issues.
For example, after reading what you said, I thought about the number of inventions that I've worked on, and how many hours I devoted to them. A few thousand hours for this invention, and a few thousand more for another one—yes, that time really does add up to many years. In that time, I could have done a lot of childrearing, as you suggested.
Inventing is still somewhat more inherently compatible with a medical career than parenting, because as an inventor I could suspend work on an invention to work a shift in the ER, and then resume working on the invention thereafter. Thus, inventing is one of the many activities that can be conveniently put on hold to make time for working as a doctor. The needs of children can't usually be postponed so easily. Of course, having a husband who equally shares the responsibilities of childrearing could remove some of the burden from your shoulders and give you more flexibility to pursue a medical career.
I agree that the achievements of women are often less tangible than those of men, so I see your point about how a mother might do wonderful things in raising her children, yet never have an accomplishment that is as readily definable as an invention, book, shed, or some other tangible product. However, I am still concerned about the comparative lack of accomplishment in women who never (or are not currently) raising children, as compared with their male counterparts. The examples you cited, such as reading a good book (one of mine, perhaps? :-) or enjoying a friendship could produce the same level of satisfaction that I obtain from inventing. Therefore, you have a valid point in suggesting that your activities are not necessarily any less personally rewarding than mine. Inventing could, however, contribute to the betterment of society by advancing our technology. Of course, you could respond by saying that you are doing enough to help society by becoming a physician, and you have no societal obligation to forgo your free time or to spend it in ways that might be better for society but less rewarding to you.
Incidentally, if you or anyone else (male or female) tries to "have it all," I highly recommend that you read my tips on increasing brainpower and efficiency (the brainpower tips are scattered throughout this site and www.ERbook.net, while the efficiency tips are primarily concentrated on this page).
PS #1: Congratulations on getting into medical school!
PS #2: The older I become, the more I realize that no one ever has enough time to do everything he or she wants to accomplish or experience in life, so don't even try to do it all. Setting your sights high is good, but too high is not. According to various studies I've read, one of the foremost predictors of happiness is having a relatively small gap between what we want (to possess, experience, or accomplish) and what we have achieved.
Consider me impressed :-) I always appreciate someone who approaches an issue not just to preach their viewpoint but to truly consider all angles, so thank you for taking the time not only to read, but also to think about my spiel! To be honest, I wasn't even trying to present an "alternative viewpoint" but merely put out my thoughts on the matter. I must say, I gained a lot of clarity in having my viewpoints challenged. Ah, the stimulation of intellectual debate! :-)
I truly enjoy discussing topics with intelligent people like you, especially when our original opinions differ somewhat. I think that it would be boring to only converse with people who agree with everything I say. However, I recently read a study which said that most people prefer to participate in Internet forums filled with others who agree with them. The ones who disagree may face socialization pressures (e.g., flaming) to ostracize the dissenters so they are less likely to participate in the future. Over time, this tends to produce forums filled with clones rather than spirited discussions in which open-minded people could learn new things and expand their horizons instead of just reinforcing their preconceptions. You made me stop and think, so I know that others could also benefit from reading what you have to say.
Thank you for writing! BTW, if you write again, I promise not to take 2½ years to respond as I did the first time! :-)
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