Friday, April 13, 2018

Yes, this actually is sexist. But is that necessarily a problem?

In the facebook comments section (yes, yes, I know) of an NPR article about the gender disparity of OB/GYNs, I read the following comment:
I have never seen a male OB GYN. I have always sought female doctors. It used to be difficult to find female providers. All of my OBs have also been mothers. I refuse to take advice regarding something as life altering as birth from someone who has no experience of their own.

As one can well imagine, there were MANY comments following that statement, and they generally fell into three different categories:

1. The most numerous were mostly from men who were making points like:

I will never take advice from a cardiologist that hasn't had a heart attack.

2. The next were almost all from women, who were making points like:
I don't have kids, but I would want someone who knows what it feels like to be pregnant and give birth. That's a perspective a male can never give, so if the woman prefers that her doctor DOES have that perspective, what's the big deal?

3. The final set (and the least numerous) were mostly from women (although there were some fathers mixed in there), who were making points like:
I have had my pain blown off by female doctors that couldn't believe my cramps were so bad. My favorite OBGYN was male. He was by far the most understanding and empathetic gyno I've seen.

But I was arrested by the following comment.

I agree with with original commenter. Ive always had female obgyns and midwives. Not all have had children of their own. It's not sexist to prefer to be seen by women. On a very basic, primal level, I did not want men around me when I gave birth. I wanted a woman each time.

Specifically, the point that stopped me was the simply stated sentence, "It's not sexist to prefer to be seen by women."

Hold on. Whut?

Change the gender or substitute race, and the bigotry of the statement becomes clear.

"It's not sexist to prefer to be seen by men."

Yeah, that's a sexist statement. If the whole basis for choosing a doctor boils down to whether the individual has a penis and testicles (or even possibly simply displays or identifies as male), then that's a sexist reason for choosing a doctor.

"It's not racist to prefer to be seen by whites."

Yeah, that's a racist statement. If the whole basis for choosing a doctor boils down to the melanin content of the individual, then - given how skin melanin content defines race in the US context (at least in terms of white vs. not-white), then that's a racist reason for choosing a doctor.

Similarly, it is definitely classist to say, "It's not classist to prefer to be seen by a doctor from a good family," and it is definitely ethnically insensitive to say, "It's not discriminatory to prefer to be seen by a Chinese doctor." So why would someone think and state unequivocally that, "It's not sexist to prefer to be seen by women"? I'm guessing because they are thinking two things:

1. "I'm not a bigot," and
2. "I feel comfortable with female doctors."

There could also be a bit of conflation between individual and societal sexism going on, but the presence of societal sexism (i.e., women being far less capable of exerting or having a societal effect that privileges women over men) doesn't mean that individual sexism (i.e., evaluating a particular individual's competence based solely or heavily on their sex) doesn't exist. This is definitely true in the case of racism, where societal racism (i.e., the greater levels of privilege held by whites vs. other races of similar backgrounds) doesn't negate the presence of individual racism (e.g., a black woman refusing to date an Asian man, because [insert racial stereotype of Asian men here]).

Okay, but is it wrong to have an individual preference?
I'd argue that it isn't necessarily wrong, per se. It's okay and perfectly natural to have preferences.
In the case above, it's perfectly okay and understandable to want to feel comfortable with any doctor you have, regardless of specialization.
What is wrong (at least to my perspective) is to have blinders on about the reasons for those preferences, especially if one's argument is based on taking the moral high ground (which the responding comment seems to try an do). In other words, to deny that one's comfort comes from inherent bias (based on sex, parental status, gender, socioeconomic background, race, or something else) is ultimately being dishonest. And if one is committing such denial in order to make a moral point about how one's choice that is inherently bigoted at the individual level isn't actually a bigoted choice, then that person's argument really should lose all merit.

In response to the comment, it is - definitionally - sexist to prefer a doctor based on the genitals they have (and the assumed life experiences they have accumulated based on what genitals they have). But if that's the factor that makes you comfortable when having someone take care of you, then you better be comfortable with that, instead of denying it up and down. What can help is to accept that the decision is made because of the sex of the individual (and the assumed life experiences based on that sex), and then to determine whether such criteria actually are merited, based on one's larger world views. Therefore, if one actually is and has no issues being a sexist, then such self-examination will mean that there is no problem; no inherent discordancy between intent and action. If, conversely, one believes themselves not to be a sexist, then such self-examination will (hopefully) mean that they will encounter a discordancy between their actions and their intentions, and that can lead to reviewing their choices.

But to deny that choices based on sex aren't sexist, because [insert rationalization here]? That just sets up a system of denialism that serves no one, including the person making the rationalizations.

And - at least to me - that speaks to larger societal contexts (and costs) of admitting that personal actions may be even the smallest bit bigoted. That cost is really high, which makes public admission of such motivations really difficult to do, which promotes denialism as well as promoting a sense of tribalistic protectionism. All of which makes any sense of progress even less likely.

Ah, well. I've said my two bits.