I want to tell you about an experience I had, because it helped me understanding mansplaining a bit better. It’s an episode I call “docsplaining.”
To understand what happened, you need a little background. I am a partner with two other people in a nonprofit organization dedicated to wellness, nutrition, and a new approach to weight loss. While I hold the title of CEO, that just reflects a role I’ve taken to help the organization — I’m not actually in charge. The two other principals are the brains of the operation.
One of our two leaders is a man I’ll call Doc, a brilliant and charismatic M.D. who holds a prestigious teaching position in a major medical school. He’s a friendly and collaborative guy with a contagious enthusiasm and he gets impossible things to happen with persistence and smarts. He is not an arrogant person.
The other is a dietitian I’ll call K. She’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of nutrition and has developed a lot of the content of our program based her work with many patients struggling with obesity over the years. K deserves a huge amount of credit for our success so far. She asserts herself as needed but, like all non-M.D.s working in medical settings, has grown used to dealing with doctors assuming they’ll be in leading roles by default.
I’ve contributed to this organization with technical and data analysis skills and writing ability — and by having some time to do things that the organization needs that the others can’t get to. For example, I wrote the grant proposal that got us our first major funding, with a lot of collaboration and help from my partners. I’m in one other crucial role: since I’ve been through the program myself, I bring the participant’s perspective. I know something about how people struggling with weight think and feel.
In the episode I’ll describe there was also a fourth person in the room: a bright third-year medical student who’s been helping us out, a woman whom I’ll call S. Since this is a story about power, age, gender, and job roles, you should know that I’m in my 50s, Doc is in his 40s, K is in her 30s, and S is in her 20s.
Here’s the scene: Doc, K, S, and I are in a conference room. We’re reviewing the comprehensive materials that K has assembled, documenting all of the content for 15 weeks of small-group sessions in our program. Her materials are designed to make it effective to train other medical professionals to lead similar groups. In addition to describing what she and Doc say when running the sessions, her materials include the questions they use to generate conversations among the patients. K also has the smart of idea of including participants’ frequently asked questions, which she has asked the rest of us to contribute to. Both she and Doc have suggested a few, but as the only one in the room that’s actually taken the program as a participant, I feel a particular responsibility to represent what I and other patients frequently ask.
In the session on food choices, I suggest we include this simple question: “Is fat bad?” I know this is how participants think. We’ve all been bombarded with talk about fat from the media, from our doctors, and from thousands of ads for low-fat products.
Doc immediately picks up on this. “You mean, ‘What’s all this I hear about saturated and unsaturated fats — what kinds of fats are bad?’ ” he says.
I cannot be certain that I have quoted him accurately, because at the moment he says this, all the blood rushes to my head and I become speechless.
Doc has now told me what question I, a participant, really meant to ask.
I look at K and S. They don’t say much, because I’m sure they experience something like this a dozen times a day.
I understand the impulse behind Doc’s comment. Doc has run hundreds of these groups. He has listened to hundreds of patients. And he knows that the question of fat and nutrition is complicated and deserves a fuller explanation.
But I am an actual participant. A doctor has just told me that the question I asked is actually not the question I should have asked. Doc knows more about nutrition than I do, but I know more the feelings of a person struggling with obesity than he does, because I am one. And “Is fat bad?” is exactly what’s on many of our minds.
For that moment, the equal partnership that the three of us have dissipates and he is a doctor and I am a patient and he is telling me how I am suppose to think. I feel undermined and powerless and I begin spluttering because I don’t know quite how to respond respectfully to this. I don’t splutter, normally, because I’m used to being in charge, but now I’ve been docsplained.
Because we all have pretty good communication after more than three years of working together — and because K is the master of combining everyone’s perspective — I know this will get resolved in the materials. And with all the conflicts and challenges we’ve dealt with, it’s not a big deal. But it did teach me something.
What I learned from this
From decades as an analyst and SVP at a research company, I became used to being in a position of authority. I’ve done my share of mansplaining.
But I think I learned something important from this interaction. The doctor-patient relationship is one where the doctor is the authority figure. In our little nonprofit, while my title is CEO, I certainly remain aware that the intellectual powerhouses are Doc and K. I’m also the only fat person and the only one who is not a medical professional.
I know Doc didn’t say what he said to shut me down or express authority. He’s used to explaining medical things to both patients and medical students, and his teaching instincts kicked in. It wasn’t hostile in the least, and I know he respects my contributions to the organization.
But at that moment, when a doctor was telling me what I, a patient, was really feeling, I felt undermined and small. It was as if my experience and knowledge didn’t matter.
It took me back emotionally to the moment at which I, a graduate student, made a wisecrack in a small graduate math class at MIT. The professor loomed up over us and said imperiously, “I make the jokes.” He was a Ph.D., not an M.D., but somehow docsplaining is still docsplaining. What happened back then actually made a difference in my decision not become a mathematician.
These things happened to me a few times. I know for women, they happen all the time. I’m trying to figure out how it would feel to have this emotion multiple times a day. I can’t. But at least now I know how it feels when it happens.
If a woman (or a patient) is talking, listen. Understand what they’re saying. Even if you have a better idea — even if you mean well — pause, and listen. It’s the least you can do.