The Day I Was Called “A Little Girl”

by Rohini G. McKee, MD, MPH, FACS, FASCRS

The Day I Was Called “A Little Girl” — or — A Brief Request to Male Surgeons

A few months ago I was called “ a little girl” while at a national meeting with a number of my colleagues. The committee that had gathered was 90% male and in my early 40’s, I was probably one of the youngest people present.

I am a specialist surgeon. I have been in practice for 10 years. At the end of this meeting, one of the surgeons in the room introduced me, using the words “this little girl” to another surgeon. Both happened to be considerably older, white men.

How do we differentiate between assault, microaggression and plain old bad manners? I don’t know. I think the answer lies in the response that is evoked.

That day, my reaction was visceral and unexpected. As his white male voice uttered those words, I felt my heart sink in my petite brown body. In an instant he made me feel inconsequential, irrelevant. He dismissed me and all my degrees, my experience and my intellect.

My rational and cerebral self struggled to right itself and put those two words into context. It could not hold up against an overwhelming despondence. It told me no matter what I do or what I achieve, in his eyes — and in the eyes of people like him — all I will ever be is “ a little girl”. I felt assaulted. There was nothing “micro” about how I felt that day.

I am sure he meant no harm. He did not mean to be condescending or even impolite. What he said was clearly acceptable in his world.

Therein lies the crux of the matter.

An older white male has lived in a different world than a younger brown female immigrant . What is even more telling about the society we live in is the fact that I said nothing.

I said nothing.

I did not have the words or the presence of mind to push back, to explain in that moment how his words affected me. My primary concern was not to appear overly sensitive. When we don’t have time to consider a reaction, when a reaction wells up spontaneously and floods your consciousness, you can trust that reaction. My disappointment and hurt were spontaneous and the magnitude of it stunned me.

I suppose I am trying to atone for my silence. So to all male surgeons I say : don’t call us little girls. Don’t call us ‘honey’, ‘dear’ or ‘sweetie’. Not in a professional environment.

For many of us, our lived experience translates those words in ways you do not intend. When women enter what has traditionally been viewed as a male profession, there are countless small reminders — looks of surprise, the endless “oh are you a nurse?”, the patient who is “waiting for the real doctor” — all letting us know on a daily basis that we don’t fit the mold. Please don’t add to that.

Half your workforce will thank you.

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