Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore City Health Commissioner

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Dr. Leana Wen. Photo via Baltimore CIty Health Department.

Years before Dr. Leana Wen was appointed to head the Baltimore City Health Department, she was leading teams of doctors in emergency rooms as the attending physician, coordinating care for patients in some of the most critical moments of their lives.

Despite being the top doctor in the room, she noticed that the person briefing the team would oftentimes not turn to her, she says.

Emergency personnel are tasked with providing information to the “attending”–that is, the senior-most physician–Dr. Wen said. “And over and over again, I observed from the time that I was a medical student, to an intern, to a resident, to the attending, that whenever everybody is gathered in the room, that story is always given to the white male.”

Even upon ascending to national prominence, having co-authored an acclaimed book advocating for patients, delivered viral TED Talks and been appointed Baltimore City’s health commissioner, she’s still seen that subtle discrimination at work.

“It was about a year or two years ago, this was in my current job. I was on a panel with a number of physicians and Ph.Ds. There were five of us on the panel; the others were all men. And everyone was introduced as ‘Dr. So-and-So,’ except for me. I was called ‘Leana.’ What made everything even more eye-opening was that this was a panel on subconscious racial bias.”

“It’s not the fault of the moderator; it’s more of a societal understanding,” Wen adds.

Sometimes a moderator will be sure to note her title, but the tone of the introduction is all wrong.

“There are things that are said to me as a woman in leadership that might not be said to a man in my same position…I was speaking at an event, and the person who was introducing me read my bio and introduced me, and then said, ‘and now I turn it over to Dr. Wen. Isn’t she just a cute little thing?’ Can you imagine that being said to a male health commissioner in my role?”

Even after years in her post as a top city official, Wen notes, “I’ve gotten advice in this job by well-meaning individuals who tell me that I smile too much and that it makes me look weak, or that my voice is raised and I’m too harsh.”

Early on in her life, Wen saw how a cultural confluence of gender discrimination and sexual aggression could set a hardworking woman back. It was apparent in her own mother’s life.

When Wen was a child, her family emigrated from China to the United States with only $40 to their name, she says. Her mother took a job as a clerk at a video rental store to help make ends meet.

“She was a cashier and helped people get videos. Her boss at the time made many sexual remarks to her…he was physically aggressive toward her. I was young at the time, but I remember her coming home and crying because of the shame and indignity that she felt. And I think the worst part of it was that she felt like she was totally powerless to speak up, because if she did, she would lose her job, and then where was she going to go?”

Regardless of their profession or rank, Wen says that for women, “the power dynamic is real.” Some individuals—such as the paramedics in the ER, who she pointed out “are under such stress with a very ill patient”—aren’t the problem; it’s the broader culture.

“It’s about the system, but we are the system. And that’s why I think it’s important for us all to take collective responsibility and say, ‘What can I do as a leader? What can I do in order to identify, promote and mentor other women? How can I best support the women on my team and women that I come into contact with?’”

She adds: “The onus must be on all of us, but in particular to those of us in positions of power, so to speak, to correct that indignity, that harassment, the unacceptable behavior.”

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Ethan McLeod
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