The Women’s Table

Oh, no. I’m at the loser table, I thought walking into the large room for our summer intern lunch.  I sat at my assigned table with the other female bioengineering summer interns and the one female manager, while looking around enviously as the male interns I worked with sat elsewhere with the men.  Every woman who works in a male dominated field wants to be sitting at the table with the highest level leadership, and we know, just as everybody else does, that that table is full of men.  If we’re lucky enough, and good enough, we aspire to be the one woman sitting with them.

It wasn’t malicious, I’m sure the company was trying its best to encourage and mentor women in engineering by pairing them with their female managers.  But I’m not sure the female manager at our table didn’t have the same thought as I did.  I’m sure she had worked very hard to climb the corporate ladder, and here she was, at this event, reminded that the main way she was seen by her colleagues and the company was as a woman.

During my Pulmonary/Critical Care Fellowship a dean of a prominent medical school came to visit and give lectures.  The senior faculty member who had invited her scheduled time for her to meet us, the fellows and the junior faculty.  Many of those who came were women.  The Dean, a very accomplished researcher, physician and administrator sat at the conference table with us and asked us questions about our research.  We stumbled uncomfortably for a while until one of the female junior attendings said: “I think we all have different research interests, but what I was really hoping to ask you about today was how you managed your work-life balance.”

Suddenly, we were full of questions – questions about how her career developed, how she had managed to raise her sons, who had taken care of them when they were little, how she picked her jobs and advanced.  She was thoughtful in her answers and informative.  She had had great mentorship, a wonderful network of scientists to collaborate with. She even left us with an inspiring statement:  ”If you work hard in clinical medicine, you can help the people you see.  But if you succeed in research, you can change medicine for a generation of patients.”

I walked out elated, and walked with her down the hall to the elevators, where the senior attending was waiting.  On the way, I had more questions – what did her husband do for a living? (She was divorced, she said.)  Was it hard to take care of everything herself? (He wasn’t much help in those departments even when he was around she answered.)

“How did it go?” my attending asked her.

“I tried to find out about their research,” the Dean answered, “but they wanted to talk about the mommy questions.”  She sounded resigned and disappointed.  I suddenly realized that our meeting, this mentorship session, in some ways exemplified the sexism she still faces, even at this high pinnacle of success.  That she worked very hard to achieve what few have: in clinical medicine, in basic science and research, in administration and running a medical school, and in the end, all these accomplishments are viewed through the narrow lens of Wow, you’re a woman! How did you do that?


The Women’s Table at Yale (picture)


The Women’s Table by renowned artist and architect Maya Lin (B.A. 1981, M. Arch 1986) lists the number of women enrolled at Yale from its founding in 1701 (0) to 1992, the first year the number of female students equaled the number of male students.

Photograph by DPB.

[My class, the class of 1999, was the first class in the history of Yale University where women outnumbered men.]


My latest post on mentoring women in medicine and science can also be found at the Broad Side.  It’s called “The Women’s Table” and you can read it here.

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