#127 The rise of ‘femtorship’ in medicine


February 10, 2020

In the wake of #timesuphealthcare, there has risen a new cultural phenomenon in medicine: the rise of otters. Dispelling the ‘queen-bee’ myth that suggests successful women bring other women down, female otters band together in rafts to prevent each other from drifting out to sea. The symbolic #raftofotters was recently coined by Dr Esther Choo and Dr Dara Kass. The two emergency physicians from the US created the internet phrase as a way of rallying together against online harassment and bullying. Furthermore, their analogy provides insight into the unique and effective ways female mentors - or ‘femtors’ - can support and promote women in medicine. 

Although the patriarchal notion of medicine as a ‘gentleman’s club’ is shifting, the experience of women in medicine still poses unique challenges. At a recent endoscopic surgery, I was reminded that medicine was built for men. As I struggled to correctly position the surgical device in my hand, the theatre-nurse politely told me most female surgeons have to adapt their technique, as surgical instruments have been designed for larger (male) hands. Her insight reassured me that I was not alone in my experience. Furthermore, she provided me gender-specific tips to help overcome the barriers of a male-dominated specialty. This is similar to other STEM fields. NASA recently celebrated its first all-female spacewalk. However, the spacewalk was initially delayed because the suits weren’t the right size for women. Femtors are aware of the unique challenges facing women in medicine. They can help us trouble-shoot gender-specific issues and provide support during otherwise isolating experiences. 

Gender biases can make women more susceptible to the imposter syndrome, especially when we feel isolated in our experience. Women, and especially women of colour, are more likely to experience imposter syndrome than men. This is often framed as an individual issue: a lack of confidence or poor self-esteem. Female mentors can make us realise that imposter syndrome is overrepresented in women due to systemic biases. These systemic biases may include women being told to avoid demanding pathways because ‘women can’t have it all’, or an over-representation of men on interview panels making us feel like we are not the ‘correct fit’ for a certain specialty. A female mentor can help remind us that we are not alone in these feelings. It is likely that they’ve experienced the same biases which make us feel like we’re not worthy of our position. Once imposter syndrome is reviewed as a systemic issue, femtors can help ensure it does not hinder career progression or goal setting. 

Female mentors can play a role in personal, as well as professional, goal-setting. Despite increasing numbers of employed women in medicine, domestic work remains very gendered. Only three per cent of Australian families have a part-time working dad and a full-time working mum. Femtors can help you navigate the complexities of parental leave, job-sharing and flexible work arrangements. Obviously, not every woman wants to have children and not every man wants to be the dominant earner. Increasing the diversity of our workplace, and changing our perceptions around parental roles, will hopefully dismantle stereotyped gender-roles. No matter what your personal choice, a femtor can be valuable in guiding you through challenging decisions pertaining work-life balance. 

Not only do femtors help us with gender-specific information and support, they can also help us perform better. A recent study found that women are more likely to attain leadership roles and be high-performing if they have an inner-circle of women supporting them. Women with a female-dominated career circle had a job placement 2.5 times higher than women with a male-dominated circle. This is probably because women can provide valuable insight into shared experiences of workplace culture, bullying and harassment and leadership. The power of female dominated groups was demonstrated by the recent Medevac campaign lead by doctors Sara Townsend, Neela Janakiramanan and Natalie Thurtle. Their campaign was pivotal in galvanising the medical community to advocate for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. Female networks and mentorship can help improve individual success, but they are also required to bridge the gender-gap currently facing medical leadership. 

As the tides of medicine change, it’s important to appreciate the support rafts which keep us afloat. Some of us are lucky enough to have found mentors organically, through medical school, research or clinical experience. For others, finding a femtor can be challenging. Organised female mentorship programs through AMSA or women in medicine events can help facilitate your own raft of otters. 

Dr Tarini Paul
DiT, Western Health
Co-Vice President, AMA Victoria Women in Medicine Committee

This article uses traditional gender terms, however, I acknowledge that gender isn’t binary and non-binary individuals face even greater barriers in the workplace. I use ‘women’ and ‘female’ to refer to anyone who identifies themselves as a woman.

AMA Victoria Preferred Suppliers