Our final guest in our SHEs In STEM series is Kelsey Caffy. Kelsey is originally from Murfreesboro, Tennessee. She attended college at Samford University and medical school at the University of Tennessee. Currently, Kelsey is finishing her first year of residency at Georgetown in combined Internal Medicine and Pediatrics. She is still undecided on career plans but is currently interested in primary care with an emphasis on medical student and resident education.
Several months ago, I was seeing a young woman named Angela for a routine check-up. She had a bright smile and struck me as confident and successful.
When we got to the part of the visit where I inquired about stress, anxiety, and feelings of depression she began to cry.
She confided in me that the current semester of college was not going well for her. She was fearful of losing her scholarship due to her declining GPA. When we discussed the specifics of her GPA and her current grades for the semester, it was obvious that she was nowhere near losing her scholarship. Objectively, her GPA was strong. The grades she wept over turned out to be B’s.
To date, I have had multiple encounters with young women that were strikingly similar to this one. In fact, my own experience as a high school and college woman shared a resemblance to Angela’s situation. As a freshman in college, a pre-medical advisor told me I should aim for a 3.7 GPA. My conclusion was that I should maintain a 3.9 GPA, just to be safe.
Studies show that women tend to be more failure and risk averse compared to men. Typically, women will only apply for jobs that they are 100% qualified for, whereas men will apply to jobs that they are 60% qualified for. In college, young women are more likely to change majors if they make B’s in those courses.
Women also hold themselves to a higher standard of success in the workplace as compared to their male colleagues, and this disparity is even more pronounced in male-dominated fields, such as STEM disciplines.
Ultimately, I wasn’t safe. I was not accepted to medical school the first time I applied, and it initially felt like a bit of an identity crisis. However, this experience taught me something valuable: how to fail.
I began to learn to view my failures as “setbacks” rather than catastrophes.
I eventually realized that whether or not I went to medical school, I had attributes that could help me become successful, even if my career wasn’t in medicine.
I’m still learning when it comes taking risks and not taking rejection personally. I’m working on remembering that every time I fail, big or small, I have the opportunity to develop myself as a person. I’m also getting better at focusing on my strengths and taking time to remember that I have unique qualities to offer in my chosen field as a physician. I often remind myself of the 2016 JAMA article which compared outcomes for over one million patients treated by male and female physicians. Patients were less likely to die when treated by a female physician. The article went on to estimate that 32,000 patient lives would be saved each year if male physicians could achieve similar results to female physicians.
Although female representation in medical schools is now equivalent to men, women in medicine face many challenges. Gender-based stereotypes are still common, particularly when women pursue fields that are traditionally male-dominated, such as Neurosurgery or Orthopedics. Additionally, although there are not specific studies on the type of feedback women receive in medicine, it seems to be ability driven, rather than results-based.
In medical school, I often received the feedback of “be more confident.”
I was never once given instructions about what actions I could change or implement to show confidence. The comments I received correlate with studies showing that women are more likely to receive feedback that focuses on fixed abilities, whereas men receive feedback that highlights specific actions and is results-based.
While failure and rejection are considered normal experiences for men, women are socialized to emulate perfection. This perspective is biased and unfair, creating unrealistic standards that young women place on themselves.
It’s important to normalize failure for young women and encourage them to take academic, social, and leadership risks that will ultimately lead to personal and professional growth.
At the end of my appointment with Angela, I told her that I wish I had made more B’s and maybe even some C’s in college. Her expression showed that she was surprised and a bit skeptical. I told her I regretted not participating in more leadership and social opportunities. I explained that I was on my own medical school’s admissions committee and we desired applicants who were well rounded, with a variety of life experiences. We wanted to find applicants who had experienced failure. Not the kind of failure where they made a B on a test instead of an A, but real failure that generates new perspective.
ICYMI: Check out our other SHEs in STEM posts-Melissa Karlin, Rachel Stuve, Kolisa Yola Sinyanya, Kara Luton, Stephanie Provence, Samantha Hau, Kira Bailey, Taylor Breland, and I Don’t Know How To Science. And don’t miss out on SHEspeaks: Rainu Ittycheriah with Eventbrite (ep 5).