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Becoming a doctor is difficult enough, considering the dedication and years of schooling required. But for Black women, the road is that much harder, according to one doctor and Harvard professor.
Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of medicine for Harvard Medical School, recently helped to pen a piece for The Lancet on the struggles she faced getting through medical school, and the challenges she still encounters today in her career. The article also delved into the low number of Black doctors across the country.
While the United States is 13 percent Black, just 5.4 percent of physicians are Black; of those, just 2.8 percent are Black women. Looking at medical academics, just .8 percent of full medical school professors in 2020 were Black women, according to the article.
When it comes to a Black woman becoming a professor at a place like Harvard Medical, considering its reputation and academic rigor, Cody Stanford noted in an interview with Boston.com that it “can be even more challenging to navigate.”
“But as a Black woman coming through and also seeing those that are coming behind me, the goal is to continue to push forward but often recognize that I’m held to a different standard than my counterparts,” she said.
Cody Stanford is far from alone in facing challenges as a Black woman in medicine.
When asked about some of the largest barriers they have overcome, Dani Monroe simply said being Black and being female. Monroe is the president of CenterFocus International, Inc., where she has helped many organizations to grapple with these issues in today’s workplaces and to foster diversity, equity and inclusion. She’s the former senior vice president and chief diversity officer at Massachusetts General Brigham.
“I think one of the biases is around credentials and capabilities that we have, and that we tend to be overqualified often, but people don’t see those credentials and capabilities,” Monroe said. “I think another bias that plays itself out is around experience and not being provided the experience and opportunities to grow and develop.”
The way to get around these biases, she said, is to ignore them.
“To really understand what my power was, what my skill base was, and where I was headed, and to navigate these from a place of strength as opposed to a deficit mindset – that I always assume when I stepped into a space that I should’ve been in that space, that there was no question in my mind whether I should be there or not,” she said.
Other problems Black women face are what Cody Stanford referred to in The Lancet as a version of the Goldilocks dilemma: “They are either insufficient and unsuitable, or boastful and overdone – never just right.”
Black women are left contemplating what to say and how they say it, and the effects of whichever move they make, Cody Stanford said. They also face “hyper-scrutiny,” and are critiqued much more harshly than their white peers, she said.
Then there are the challenges that come with just being a woman. For instance, Dr. Camille Clare is the chair and a professor for the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at SUNY-Downstate Health Sciences University College of Medicine and School of Public Health. But sometimes, she said at the conference, it’s as if her title means nothing to colleagues or peers.
“Some of the challenges include being a part of the patriarchy, so even in my role you’d think, ‘Oh chair of the department, what could be the issue there?’” she said. “I’ve been in spaces with male colleagues that I felt like I’m not even in the role that I have.”
In terms of society being especially harsh in its perception of Black women, she, too, has thought about how people perceive her, prompting her to lower her voice, or consider her tone.
“I’m still accused of having a tone problem,” she said. “It’s unbelievable.”
With so few Black doctors in general, and an even fewer number of Black woman doctors, there’s a gap when it comes to Black children who dream of becoming a doctor, or who have even actually seen a Black doctor in practice.
For Cody Stanford, some of her patients say that she’s the first Black doctor they’ve ever had.
Cody Stanford considers herself lucky in that she grew up in southwest Atlanta. In Atlanta, there’s a group of middle- to upper-class Black communities and, therefore, professionals including doctors to look up to.
“But if you don’t see it then you can’t be it,” she said. “You don’t believe that that’s in your framework.”
Because that was her lived experience — regularly seeing Black people as doctors and in other highly skilled professions — Cody Stanford didn’t realize her experience was not the norm until later on when she left.
“So I’m grateful that I had people to look up to,” she said. “It’s also what’s kept me going.”
For Cody Stanford, the future lies with the people she’s currently mentoring, and with engaging people on the issues.
“If that’s what I’m doing, then I feel like I’ve been successful even if it didn’t directly benefit me,” she said. “I know that most of the things I do will not help me, they actually make my path much more challenging, but that’s kind of what I’ve signed up for.”
Cody Stanford says she mentors people from all different backgrounds and tries to instill in them awareness of how the way someone looks may affect their path.
“The one key tenet that I get across to each of them is their need to recognize the plight of someone who looks like me,” she said. For those white male mentees she has, she wants them to remember that as they may quickly grow in their careers, they should remember who their mentor was. She wants them to recognize the challenges someone who looks like her may face, and for them “to be thoughtful.”
It’s her faith in her mentees that keeps her going, Cody Stanford said.
“It’s the ones that are coming behind — looking at the work that they’re pioneering and spearheading and seeing that they’re thinking differently, they’re focused differently, they care in a different way than … those who have preceded me,” she said. “That’s what keeps me optimistic.
“The reason I take on so many of them is I need them to feel hopeful — otherwise I don’t feel so hopeful.”
Personally, Cody Stanford has learned to take care of herself when she’s not working long hours as a doctor or professor, or giving lectures, or interviews to the media. She uses exercise to work through some of the stress that comes with her job. She also relies on her family and faith. But she knows that the world she’s in can have negative effects on her.
“It hurts me to navigate,” she said of her professional world. “But I can’t stop. It’s part of the work I do.”
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