A joke about semen in an editorial has plunged the American College of Surgeons into controversy and raised charges of institutionalized sexism.
According to a post by Dr. Pauline Chen on the Times Well blog, the offending editorial, by ACS president-elect Dr. Lazar J. Greenfield, discussed the possible mental health benefits of semen, closing with the line, "So there's a deeper bond between men and women than St. Valentine would have suspected, and now we know there's a better gift for that day than chocolates." Presenting your jizz as a Valentine's Day gift is pretty clearly a bad idea, as is suggesting it in your professional association's official publication. In response to complaints, the paper pulled the article and asked Greenfield to resign as editor-in-chief. But this hasn't resolved the issue for everyone — one female member of the ACS, Dr. Colleen Brophy, has resigned "not so much because of the editorial but because of the leadership's response to it." It's not entirely clear what response she's referring to, although ACS president L.D. Britt's suggestion that women follow the example of the post-apartheid South African government and practice "reconciliation" may well have struck some people as strange.
Chen points out that all this is going down in a field that's pretty skewed against women already — just 10% of ACS members are women. Also, she writes,
While women now make up almost half of all entering medical school classes in the United States, fewer than a third choose to go into surgery, in part because of a perceived male bias, negative attitudes of surgeons and a lack of female mentors. Once in practice, studies have shown, well over half of all women surgeons report feeling demeaned, and nearly a third say they have been the objects of inappropriate sexist remarks or advances.
What makes the Greenfield story kind of sad, though, is that he's long been seen as a valuable mentor to women — one female professor calls him "above reproach." It's unfortunate that someone who's seemingly done a lot to help women was also thoughtless enough to write an editorial containing an inappropriate comment of the kind his female colleagues probably have to deal with far too often on the job. The gaffe also seems to have split the ACS, between those who see it as a simple mistake and those for whom it's symbolic of larger problems. Says Dr. Barbara Lee Bass,
I'm not sure some of the old guard see this as the watershed moment it is. [...] It's not so much about Dr. Greenfield anymore. It's about the spine of our organization and the principles by which the organization governs itself.
It would be easy to imagine this debate descending into a petty argument about whether women are right to be offended by a semen joke. But it's clear that there are bigger issues at play — and hopefully this controversy will inspire the ACS to address them.
Sexism Charges Divide Surgeons' Group [NYT Well Blog]
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