Is sexism impacting our maternity care?

Sexism is an idea we are all familiar with. Many of us think that, with the passage of time, the passing of generations and the ever increasing “rights” of women, that sexism is standing on its last leg. But is it really, or have we normalised it so much in our everyday lives that we fail to recognise it for what it is?

With the recent media hype surrounding the social media comments made by Dr Chris Buck (if you missed it you can read his post here) I started thinking about his comments and those of his “supporters”. Whilst he has defended them as “humorous” and “unintentionally hurtful”, were they in fact, blatant sexist comments made by a misogynist that have gone unrecognised for what they are because we are living with sexism every day? Were you one of the many who also believed his comments were simply “late night humour”?

Sexism, as defined by the Encarta Dictionary is “discrimination against women (or men) because of their sex”, while a misogynist is someone who has “a hatred of women, as a sexually defined group”. Many men, and women, would read these definitions and think “well that’s not me, I don’t “hate” women”, but what about the more subtle sexist double standards that are so ingrained in our culture that we are failing to recognise them for what they are? Are they influencing all facets of our communities including our maternity care system? Take for example, expecting our daughters to have better behaviour than our sons because “boys will be boys”, or school dress codes that still dictate that girls wear dresses and skirts when shorts are clearly more practical? Studies have shown that it’s not just men who show bias against women; women can also hold unconscious bias towards their own sex, such as judging a woman more harshly for working full time whilst raising children, than we do men.

The maternity industry as a whole is a veritable minefield for sexism due to its nature – only women will ever utilise this service. That is why our care providers need to be very careful with the language they use and the way they behave towards their consumers. A recent article from examines a “gender pain gap” and found that “Women’s pain is taken much less seriously by doctors than men’s is. This gender pain gap has a number of serious and far-reaching implications; including that women in acute pain are left to suffer for longer in hospitals, they are more likely to be misdiagnosed with mental health problems due to misogynistic stereotypes that women are ‘emotional’ even when clinical results show their pain is real and they are consistently allocated less time than male patients by hospital staff due to men’s complaints being seen as more authoritative and important.” While this report does not address the maternity sector specifically, we would be safe to assume that these attitudes cross over into it.

The actions and language of our maternity care system have long since relegated women’s rights. Many women report being coerced through fear based language to consent to procedures and interventions during childbirth that they do not want. Some are subjected to procedures they did not consent to at all. It is my belief that all of these actions are dictated by the ever present patriarchal society that has decided women are inferior and do not deserve to have autonomy over their own bodies. That we are somehow lesser; less intelligent, less capable, less informed, because we are pregnant. Because we are women.

So, were Dr Buck’s comments really so harmless? Reading the above excerpt and comparing it to his comment “Also, please be patient because unlike you, we were snuggled in our warm comfy beds and can't feel a thing so don't want to rush when called at this hour” I’m starting to draw some alarming comparisons between the two. Now I am not saying that Dr Buck is a misogynist, or that his comments were intentionally sexist, but does he think it’s acceptable to act and speak in such a degrading and disrespectful manner because he has been raised in a “subtly sexist” society? And are his supporters, who think “people are oversensitive these days” really just helping to perpetuate the status quo? Ask yourself, would you be so quick to dismiss his comments had he made them about a car crash victim, transplant patient or child?

As a society we need to recognise sexism for what it is and speak out against it. We need to stop justifying, explaining away and making-light of discriminatory behaviour and comments and call it out for what it is. For change to occur we need women and men from all walks of life to confront sexism where it lives. We all need to start taking responsibility for the part we play in perpetuating sexism in our modern society.

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