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Priya Malhotra Headshot

I Am Doctor. Hear Me Roar.

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I've always been a fan of riddles. Here's a classic:

A man and his biological son are involved in a car accident. Tragically, the man dies. The son survives the crash and is taken to the hospital for immediate surgery. The surgeon, upon seeing the boy, exclaims, "I can't operate on this boy! He's my biological son." How is this possible?

Answer: the surgeon is the boy's mother.

I admit I was stumped when I first heard this riddle in 4th grade. This is actually a very embarrassing admission, and not only because I fancied myself a riddle master as a child. It's especially embarrassing I grew up surrounded by female physicians. My maternal grandmother, for example, is a retired obstetrician/gynecologist. And now, 14 years after hearing the riddle, I'm on my way toward becoming a physician myself.

So why did this riddle stump me? (Why did it stump you?) After all, one third of all U.S. physicians are women -- and this number is steadily increasing. Half of all U.S. medical school graduates are female. In Chicagoland alone, there are some 2,000 female medical students.

Despite this, there seems to be a prevailing societal notion that the "stereotypical doctor" is a man.

My medical degree is two years away, but I've already experienced this stereotype firsthand. Specifically, this has occurred on days I've worn scrubs in public.

Every Wednesday and Thursday, I am required to wear scrubs to class. Therefore, twice a week, I run my after-school errands in scrubs. Strangers often comment on my monochromatic cotton garb. The most common comment I get is this: "you must be a nurse."

I know these strangers mean no harm, but their assumption -- that I'm a nurse, not a soon-to-be doctor -- exposes their subconscious sexism. I'm not offended if a stranger thinks I might be a nurse. After all, every nurse I've ever met has been kind, caring, and incredibly knowledgeable. I have utmost respect for nurses and nursing students. I'm offended, however, when strangers say, "you must be a nurse." If I were male, wearing the same set of blue scrubs, would strangers make the same assumption?

The strangers who assume I must be a nurse are likely following the same train of thought as those who are stumped by the riddle above. That is, they probably associate the word "doctor" with the image of a white-coat-wearing stethoscope-laden man. A Google image search of the word "doctor" illustrates the extent of this association.

I think, in the coming decades, this association will change. As the number of women in medicine continues to grow, society ought no longer link the word "doctor" to the image of a man. Maybe, in the future, I'll tell my (not-yet-existent) children that riddle. They'll roll their eyes and say, "duh, Mom. Too easy. The surgeon is his mother." And perhaps, in the future, strangers will see me in scrubs and say, "You must be a doctor."