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Can Women Physicians be Feminine and Still Wield Power?

Gender Stereotyping Needn’t Get In the Way!

the feminine idealTwo big concepts: feminine and power.  Juxtaposed they seem at odds.  And they are at odds as long as women physicians allow them to be.  This juxtaposition may seem dissonant.  And it is.  And it has a name: gender stereotyping (GS)–behaving out of expected societal “norms.”  GS needn’t get in the way if we have clarity about who we are, confidence in ourselves, and take ourselves and our jobs seriously.

Let’s start with definitions.  “Feminine” evokes a complex set of psychological, cognitive, and cultural images.  Taking the behavioral characteristics alone, the “feminine” is receptive and nurturing.  Women are more likely to demonstrate empathy, teamwork, and collaboration.  Understanding and often feeling the interconnection between people and their roles, actions and motivations in a complex system is well within the skills set acquired during our lives.

“Power” is the ability to bring about change.   It is not just about control,  as too many who have power mistakenly think. Power is about creating forward movement.   This needs a vision, teamwork, persuasion, and good communication skills.  Those of us who are fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to bring about change, need to be prepared to take on the responsibility, for without meaningful change in all aspects of our lives, we would stagnate and in the ultimate case, we would die.  Two favorite quotes to highlight this are: “Those who don’t change become extinct,” and “Change is the only constant thing in life.”

So women who are feminine can definitely wield power because every quality found in the “feminine” is valuable in creating change.  These feminine traits are not passive.  And when they are combined, women can create a powerful force. 

But, many would argue, when women enter positions of power, and use their skills of persuasion, presenting a strong vision, they are often seen as “bossy” or “pushy.”  No doubt, negative gender stereotypes make it difficult for women to be taken seriously.   Personality traits that are not usually associated with women’s behavior can and do “get in the way.”

How do we overcome GS, overcome this double bind?  One important way is by also using our physical “feminine.” Women need not look like or act like a man at work.  It is confusing and unexpected to patients and colleagues alike.  Dressing to suit ourselves.  Using our natural warmth, our own style.  We need to be ourselves–the self that was brought up in a cultural context.  Using the cultural context, instead of GS binding us, it can be a highly effective tool. Not because we are conforming to expectations, but because we have embraced these behaviors and looks ourselves.  When a woman embraces whatever part of her feminine side she enjoys, and couples that with a professional demeanor, and shows mutual respect, she has a winning combination.  Or as the guys might say, “All of the equipment.”  Confidence radiates because she has all of her roles under control.

And this brings us to the key element that links the feminine with power.  Confidence. Confidence in who we are, and in our unique skills, knowledge and capabilities.

So women should embrace those feminine qualities that are part of our DNA. Each one of us individually, must embrace whatever we value in ourselves.  This goes from how we look to how we act to what we think and what we feel.  At the same time, which is where the difficulties emerge,  we also must recognize those traits, if misused, can derail from our goals. If we are not careful.  So as in the world of business, and also in the House of Medicine, women who are assertive, confident, and aggressive, can be successful if they know when and where to turn on or turn off each one these traits for appropriate circumstances.

So again, I ask, what are we women physicians to do?  First, discover who we, each one of us, are.  Second, let that person shine through. Make sure we come from our own authentic, feminine self.  And when we do, we will have the confidence to take our selves and our voices seriously.  And that is how the feminine can help us to wield the power for positive change in our work and our lives.

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