There are times when I was pretty sure that the only reason I got what I wanted was because I was a girl. My car was once towed for free. I got a free radio installation. And who knows what else, because when you’re 17 and have long blond hair, society trains you to expect to get certain things, no questions asked… Sad, but true. (also why I think it’s important for girls to chop that hair off and then see what happens! It’s VERY enlightening…)
I’ll come back to this, bear with me. Recently someone mentioned a good volunteer opportunity with a doctor. These aren’t easy to come by, but this physician in particular worked with a lot of students and has had a private practice for over 30 years. I sent in my application and received more than I expected in return.
I went in for a preliminary meeting with the doctor where he seemed nice enough. He was an elderly man that kind of stuttered over his words and talked… a lot… about himself… I didn’t say much that first meeting. But he asked me to come in to shadow a bit so I could see what it was like. I thought this was a bit much for volunteer work, but I asked for some time off and went in (yes, time off to volunteer…) I really liked what I did. I talked to patients, he explained charts, medications, I saw how the whole office was run. I left kind of excited about the opportunity.
About a week later, he sent me an email asking me to come back again during my work time to “see what we could do about turning me into a cheery volunteer.” Okay, I have this quirky sensitivity to not being a cheery person. I know, it’s retarded, but I’m WELL aware of the fact I appear to be an unsmiling pisshead. But I’m also not a naturally chipper person, it’s just not who I am. (An aside, my dad once told me he hoped I would choose to live in Europe because I was so introverted and Europe has a better acceptance of introverts than Americans. And you want to know something? SO TRUE. I get reamed all the time for not smiling, even by homeless people. But my 9 months in Paris? I got flack over my boy short hair, but never over my not smiling…) Anyway, needless to say the doctor mentioning that made me super paranoid over nothing and I thought I was not going to get the volunteer job at all because I don’t smile enough and how lame would that be? But the during work hours thing? Kind of also lame. Because he knew I had a full time job. And he knew I wanted to volunteer after work in the evenings… But once again, I moved my work schedule around with some vague excuse to go in a volunteer late one afternoon.
I loved talking to patients. I loved pulling out medical charts for the next day, learning about prescriptions, and flipping through histories to get a sense of what brings people in. After the office closed the doctor asked me out for a drink to talk about volunteering. I agreed and we went to a restaurant for appetizers. He told me a lot about his practice, told me how everyone on his staff was in school (4 part time medical students, 1 receptionist, all female). He told me about how he liked having students around. Since he is in a private practice students insured he had people interested in medicine he could talk with and he also had something to offer – a nice recommendation. And he brought some of the recommendations with him to show me (I’ve never had this happen before and honestly, it seems like something that should stay private, but he brought them, and I read them…) I read two. Each for a previous female volunteer. And what stood out? Well, the general lack of anything spectacular about his recommendation (did he even know these people?) and one sentence in the second one – “However, (this girl’s) biggest asset is her physical appearance and demeanor.” I think I stopped there and don’t even remember what the rest said.
He told me about how he met a previous medical assistant and volunteer. They were cocktail waitresses at a resort that he is the physician for and he recruited them. He told me there are lots of perks to working with him, one being he tends to give really great gifts after his volunteers and staff get into med school. In fact he gave the last volunteer an iPhone with the caveat she keep in touch with him. And he recently went to a former employee’s graduation party from med school. He liked what he did and wanted to establish a family vibe…
He asked me on the spot if I’d like to join the team as a volunteer. I told him wanted to talk about it with my partner. Why did I say that? Honestly, it was the line in the recommendation letter. It REALLY bothered me that he would comment on someone’s physical appearance and that a med school would see that. What did he say to my response? Well, first he kept asking me in however many ways possible if I would accept the volunteer job. Then he asked: “Well, do you mind me asking if by ‘partner’ you mean ‘lesbian partner’?” Yeah… He did ask that. And yes, I do call boy my partner. Because he is my life partner. I told the doctor no, it’s my boyfriend, I just call him my partner. He gave me this lecture on terminology and said well if you’ve been together so long you may as well call it common law spouse. I left it at that, and walked back to the office with him as I had accepted his ride home since it was already 8:30 pm.
He left something in his office, so we went back before going to his car. While in his office he showed me a bulletin board where he wrote little poems and rewrote songs to sing to his employees and volunteers that went off to school. He sang a few, I was tired and wanted to go home, but he sang and read some more and finally we left. So he dropped me off at home where boy and I talked it out.
I liked this volunteer opportunity. But it was the doctor himself that put me off. Not only was it the line in the recommendation, but he directed me on how I should refer to boy. That just flat out annoyed me. So we talked out pros and cons, and as much as I liked the work, the doctor would annoy me. Just his singing and poetry alone would put me over the edge. Just not worth it.
I called the doctor the next day to thank him but to let him know I would not be accepting the volunteer opportunity. And he flipped. “Was it me? Did I say something? I really thought you wanted be a part of this office, that’s why I read you my poems and took you out for a drink! Were you intimidated by the work?” Yeah, I’M NOT KIDDING, this went on for about 10 minutes in which I repeated over and over “you know, it’s just not a good fit for me.”
I’ve repeated this experience to quite a few people, because personally, I was terribly shaken up by his response. I was really upset by his response. Part of me felt guilty, but a huge part of me was scared. I can’t really explain why I was scared I just was… The response from other people however has been very divided. Some people are like oh well, you’ll find another place to volunteer. And others? “Al, you dodged a bullet.”
My thoughts on this having sat on it for a few weeks? This doctor is a sexist old man. He surrounds himself with young 20-something women where he not only assumes a position of paternal power that is looking out for their career, he has no boundaries. The receptionist told me about her 2 weeks of unpaid training when she started and how he only compensated her on bridge tolls driving to and from the office. (Is that even legal? I think it’s very exploitative) He asked me about my personal life crossing the limitations of professionalism, pressured me into commiting to the volunteer job on the spot, and the initial email (about being a cheery volunteer) seemed like an attempt to manipulate someone who is insecure (which often soft-spoken and not smiley is misinterpreted for lack of self-confidence.) I think his response was because I bruised his ego and he has never been turned down by a young woman before… And honestly, I don’t think any of this is extreme accusation, but rather the truth…
I do think that less than a year ago I would have not seen any of this and would have volunteered for this guy. I think this is my first awareness of sexism and I think many people find this harmless. I think that’s too bad.
The experience is sticking with me because I am still shaken up by it. Mostly that I got so far into being around this doctor before I could see what was up. I was about to let myself be typecast as one of the office girls. And now, I’m recalling all of the other times I have allowed myself to be typecast, not stood up for myself, let someone assume I was just one of those girls. Just one of those girls… And while I keep beating myself up for not seeing this earlier in my life, I know now that I will never let that happen again.