Your Career: Female Physician Troubled by Perceived Abrasiveness

Struggling to behave in a way that goes against instinct, she asks our career pros to help identify a balance between “passive” and “abrasive.”

Q I’m a female physician who works in a predominantly male environment. Years ago, I was accused of being too abrasive and had to participate in an HR sensitivity program. This really bothered me, but I complied and did my best to choose my words and actions carefully going forward. Many of my male counterparts are much more aggressive than I am, yet they are never reprimanded for their behavior. I’m struggling to behave in a way that goes against my instinct. As a result, I have considered leaving my current employer, but I’m concerned that I will face the same obstacle elsewhere. Please help me identify the balance between “passive” and “abrasive.”

A It’s a sad reality that high-achieving men and women often are described differently in performance reviews. What’s often seen as “initiative” and “boldness” in men often is described as “bossiness” and “aggression” in female professionals like us. This is partly attributed to women mirroring the behavior of their male colleagues, as well as traditional stereotypical expectations of how women should act.


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Perceived abrasiveness can undermine women’s careers and even lead to gender-based pay inequity. In a 2014 study, Fortune found women’s performance reviews are more likely to include critical feedback. Where men are given constructive suggestions, women are given constructive suggestions — and also told to “pipe down.”

You’re right — such attitudes probably will exist elsewhere. Medicine is still a male-dominated world, despite more women in it than ever. Negative feedback hurts, but it is worth exploring for personal growth. Ask yourself what you can learn from this, and why it might be happening. You have skills, experience and expertise, yet you might be coming across as threatening somehow.

As suggested by Paolina Milana, writing in 2013 for Forbes, subtle changes can help:

  • Don’t be aggressive; be assertive. This helps to bring the threat level down.
  • Don't speak first; play piggyback. Use others’ words to build upon and make your point.
  • Don’t disagree; agree (even when you really don’t). Always agree with what you can, and then advance your message by focusing on how that agreement equates to what you actually want to push forward.
  • Don’t make statements; ask questions. With simple questions, you can make a point without having to disagree with anyone.

Ideally, we can raise awareness of how women’s behavior and skills are misperceived by male colleagues, and work to banish this bias. This might occur with time as more women rise to leadership roles in medicine. Until then, it appears that women who combine assertiveness with softer traits might be more likely to succeed.

Topics: Career Planning Journal

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