Read a Personal Story
A black woman doctor from the Midwest.
An Ob-Gyn working on diversity as it pertains to patient health advocacy
Q: How has race affected your journey? What impact did it have on your sense of self as you transitioned through school and into the workplace?
A: The reason I went into OB-GYN was because I felt like I could relate more and create a different environment for myself later in life. There were days in medical school and residency when I was the only black woman there. That led to me deciding the OB-GYN made sense. Surgery was highly toxic and male dominated, and on the borderline of being a #MeToo moment if I chose that specialty. My gender and experiences of being the only woman and being the only black woman is why I chose to be an OB-GYN. Our field is dominated by women, and the empowerment of having that advantage is nice. Women are requesting female providers, and it's another privilege, but how I got there evolved over time because of feeling “Othered,” or different, or not having a voice in the operating room. There have been episodes when I’ve been at a conference, and someone will repeat a comment I said and they get the credit, and I have to say, “Hey, I just said that.” You are routinely discounted in some spaces because women aren’t “loud” with their comments and we aren’t expected to be or rewarded for it.
I initially came to the Bay Area for residency, and I planned to return to the Midwest or the East Coast when my residency ended. But people kept saying, “Well, you are reallly good at public speaking. You are good about organizing people and things. People like you, and you should be chief of this department.”
That was my big opportunity to have more visibility, and people got to know who I was throughout the region. Once our medical group appointed a new CEO, the group posited the idea to invest in this space with culturally responsive care and inclusion, and they wanted a doctor to facilitate it from the physician’s point of view. When you are dealing with caregivers and patients, it is slightly different. Now were building a team, getting the engagement of physicians already involved in the space, and articulating our goals clearly.
I think it’s a privilege to bring the voice of patients who are voiceless. They go through back doors to find me. Once we meet, we have these amazing conversations about how they have experienced care, and the struggles with communication within health care, the health literacy piece, with fear and trust. For the most part, being a woman, especially in this specialty, is what helps the most – because I’m relateable. So, being a woman in this space, and in the medical group, has been a benefit. But sometimes, there are just certain barriers because it may not be something in language and culture. I tell pateints I’m not in the office every day because I’m advocating for them in a different way, and that reuires me to be at headquarters. It is me using a different part of my brain. But I go back to the office and hear these stories, and I know this is a unique position for me to be in because I do have the lived experience to understand what some of these people are navigating and going through. I can relate from college and being discouraged from advocating for myself.
There are advantages to working in an urban area, because it’s culturally and ethnically diverse with both the workforce and the patients, and it’s why I chose to work at this particular hospital group as opposed to other places. The unicorn experience I have is that there are several other black women doctors who also work with me, and we are relatively close. It’s a gret sense of camaraderie and support, particularly when navigating the workplace. One night, we all met up for dinner and we had on matching T-shirts. This white woman came up to us, as a collective group of black women wearing “Black Doctors” shirts, and she told us she was a doctor, too; her specialty; and how she had never seen anything like this, and she celebrated it!
I made sure to place myself in environments to thrive. It is why I have designed my career to be in particular environments and spaces to be able to have a certain type of experience. In college, I had a 3.5 [GPA] in the school of engineering, and the dean suggested I try nursing, or something else, because he didn’t think I’d get into medical school. That was a spark he lit, so that I was motivated to prove him wrong. I got into several schools. I applied for postbaccalaureate programs, in case, and I got into those.
The pipeline is hard because people discount the importance of having a mentor on this journey. That also is key when you are working somewhere – the importance of mentors and sponsors in the workplace. I learned that the hard way in high school and college, because people will try to steer you in a direction they believe you are capable of , not based on you actual ability. There are so many barriers going into medicine, and I was fortunate that my parents found a way to get me involved in summer programs related to medicine, to get study courses for me. How you navigate your way into medicine is often done by the student on their own, and they have to figure it out, which may be discouraging, but it does inspire grit and resiliency.
Adapted from Diversity in the Workplace by Bari A. Williams