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Women Physicians Do More ‘Non-Promotable’ Work

Op-Med is a collection of original articles contributed by Doximity members.

I always said yes. That’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Always say yes because you don’t know which opportunity is going to be “the one” that launches your career into orbit. So I said yes to organizing the lunch orders when the drug reps came; I said yes to an extra teaching session about bowel obstructions for the PAs; I said yes to Saturday morning medical school interviews and Friday afternoon laparoscopic workshops and joining xyz committees on which I was the token Asian lesbian. I thought, someday, all this hard work, all this extra time I’m putting in will get recognized. Little did I know that none of these things counted toward the most important benchmarks of productivity and publication. At the end of the year, when the hospital administrators have you justify your bonus, they ask you what your relative value units are and how many papers you wrote, not how many committees you were on. 

Not to say that I didn’t do a lot of surgery cases and also write a bunch of abstracts, and this isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy all of the other stuff that I do, because I love teaching and writing and being a voice for the people. But I had been thinking a lot about all the things I do for free, both at work and outside of it. We pay to go to medical school and then we are paid when we become physicians. But then, we end up paying to be part of a society or association so that we can serve on their committees and do a bunch of work for free. Some of us also volunteer, work as ambassadors and mentors, do virtual shadowing, write recommendation letters, edit personal statements, write guest blog posts, edit and present abstracts, review journal articles, and more. What is it all for?

Perhaps some of the extracurriculars count as stepping stones toward a bigger goal, say a promotion or a national committee chair. But does ordering lunch really make that much of an impact? Or is it that “getting the food” is considered womanly work, or is it that I’m too nice and people always think, “Carmen will do it!”? But studies have also shown that women tend to do more of this “free” work than their colleagues who are men. The authors of “The No-Club” wrote in a Harvard Business Review article that women were found to do 200 more hours of non-promotable work than their male counterparts. These hours include sitting on committees, planning birthday parties, ordering coffee, and working with trainees. 

At a recent Zoom meeting where a dozen or so early career surgeons were “chosen” to be part of a journal article reviewer academy, we were sold and told to apply because it gave us the “chance” to work with seasoned article reviewers and potentially join the group of reviewers one day, or even rise to be an editor. I jumped at the opportunity and was extremely honored that my application was accepted. I learned a lot at each session and valued the feedback I received for my article reviews.

However, as I looked around the virtual room at my fellow reviewers, I saw a lot of women, and especially a lot of women of color. I couldn’t help but think, were we enticed into doing free, non-promotable work by showing us the carrot of a prestigious career path that only white, cisgender men have taken? One of the examples given in this article is “tending to high-touch clients.” I can’t help but think how women colorectal surgeons bear the brunt of pelvic floor dysfunction patients, which tend to be more time-consuming and require more extensive workup and psychosocial evaluation, generally without the “payoff” of a large operation. 

We do a lot for free. Should we stop doing the free stuff, or demand fair pay, or should we count it all as stepping stones toward higher-paying, more prestigious positions? Evidence says maybe all of the above, but most importantly, institutions need to make a conscious effort to evenly distribute these “housekeeping” jobs, or ask the most qualified person, regardless of gender.

Women find it hard to say no. “A big contributor to women doing this work is that we expect them to do it,” one of the authors of the Harvard Business Review article says. When considering my own culpability in this systemic injustice, I realize that sometimes I take on these roles because I feel that I could do a better job than anyone else, and sometimes if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself! I am sure that many of you who are reading this feel this way. Doing it yourself nurtures some sense of control. But sometimes it’s OK to delegate. For whatever reason, or no reason at all, consider this your permission to say no. 

The thing is … maybe I like doing all these other things? Is there a better feeling than being able to say, I swung by the bakery on the way to work and picked up this cake and had everyone sign this card before your surprise birthday party? Or throwing a Secret Santa for all your colleagues as a minute speck of light in all the darkness that is residency training?

One afternoon, my wife told me she had to make a list of all the things she’s done in the past year as a part of her annual performance evaluation, and she was surprised at how long her list was, even though she didn’t feel like she was doing much at the time. She said I should make a list of all the things I’ve done. When I looked back, I have done a lot in my short career. And while the majority of it did not count toward the productivity and publication standards that we’re often judged by, I feel like I can count my successes in the people I’ve helped along the way. And that counts for something. 

What “free” work have you done in your career? Share in the comments.

Dr. Carmen Fong is a writer, artist, and double board-certified general and colorectal surgeon who moved from New York City to Atlanta, Georgia, with her wife and two cats. They recently welcomed a baby daughter. She is the author of Constipation Nation (Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming 2024), and is currently in private practice as Co-Director of Hemorrhoid Centers of America. She was a Stony Brook Children’s Literature Fellow and is currently a Doximity Op-Med Fellow. Her work has been published online in, The Apothecary, The Bookends Review, the polyphony, The GoatPol, and She can be found on social media, mostly on Instagram @drcarmenfong, on Substack @hongkongfong, and on Twitter @Carmen_FongMD. When she is not writing or working, she enjoys cooking, drawing cartoons, and reading about the mysteries of the universe. Dr. Fong was a 2022–2023 Doximity Op-Med Fellow, and continues as a 2023–2024 Doximity Op-Med Fellow.

Illustration by April Brust

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