Burnt Chop Syndrome
Have you ever had this thought? Is it OK to talk about discrimination when you are a privileged
member of society?
I once asked this question of a candidate for an Industrial Officer position at a doctors’ union: How
would you feel arguing for more rights for some of the most powerful and well-paid members of
society? The candidate gave me a wise answer: everyone has the right to fair treatment.
So, as women in a medical specialty whose College Board is currently exclusively male, should we
just accept this as an aberration, not a big issue, or should we work to do something about it? What
does it mean when we see and feel things that disappoint us, disrespect us and devalue us, both as
women and as Emergency Physicians, but don’t feel empowered or motivated to do anything about
it? Will we always be taking the “burnt chop” (look it up) because other people’s needs are greater
than our own? Or can overcoming systematic disadvantage help BOTH others and ourselves?
It goes without saying that not all women are victims, just like not all men are aggressors. What
needs to be acknowledged, however, is that fifty percent of the population is not represented in fifty
percent of positions of power. And we can’t assume that this is because we are unsuited, or
unwilling, or occupied in other priorities, because we have not yet created an environment where all
other things are equal. It’s like a controlled trial – you can’t assume causation unless you have
controlled for all the confounders.
In order to change things, we need to understand things. We can learn from the management and
leadership literature: women are more likely to aspire to positions of power when they are seen to
be available to us as a matter of course – not just to the heroes and trailblazers among us.
So, what stops us – both as women and as Emergency Physicians – refusing to accept less than
equality? What makes us put up with disrespect and second-class status? Imposter syndrome? Burnt
To rise out of this, we can look to the various generations of feminism. The early radicals put up with
all sorts of abuse and harassment to gain us the vote, the right to work, entry into medical school.
Mid-twentieth century feminists broke barriers in reproductive health and entry into male-
dominated workplaces. Late twentieth century feminists continued to push for entry to layers above
the ‘glass ceiling’, while their younger sisters rejected their perceived stridency, never having
experienced the world of forced parenthood and home life. What should twenty-first century
feminists do? Are we brave enough to be ‘strident’, to keep pushing boundaries? Can we accept that
we have ‘enough’ when it’s not the same as everyone else?
Perhaps it’s time to throw out the burnt chop, to refuse to accept second best, to insist on the
language of respect, and the structures of equality. And time for generations to unite. Nothing
makes me more hopeful than the passion of my younger ‘sisters’ in Emergency Medicine, both
seeking and offering support. NoWEM is here. We CAN do it.
Sue Ieraci, for NoWEM