Women in Paramedicine A Force to be Reckoned With

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Are girls really superior?

That’s a tough one, and I’m sure the answer will upset someone. But here we go. To see which gender brings more to the table, let’s have a look at some of the following:

  • The historical discrimination of women in the workplace
  • The scientific evidence
  • The real world requirements of prehospital care

You may find it enlightening…..

History

Shirley Chisholm was the first African-American woman elected to the US Congress. Like many women in the workforce, she was tired of in-equality and here is one of her more famous quotes.

 “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”

I think it’s fair to say that the workforce has not always been fair to women. Especially those who chose to work in ‘non-traditional’ roles. In some regions, women were actually banned from working on ambulances and fire trucks. Not that long ago, some occupational regulations stated that women weren’t allowed to lift more than 16 kg. This I learned while reading a newspaper story by Neelima Choahan in ‘The Age’ Newspaper from Victoria, Australia.

One of the paramedics interviewed for the story describes how it was in the early years and shows what had to be overcome.

“So when I went to the toilet, I had to walk past the urinal to walk to the toilet. There was only one shower. They had no uniforms set up for us, so we were expected to fit into the male uniforms.”

The women also faced sexism in the community.

“Very early on, almost all the patients called me ‘nurse’ or ‘sister’. They didn’t seem to get it into their heads that I was a paramedic,” she said.

“If I happened to be driving on that particular day, you often got asked, ‘oh! You drive as well, do you?”

“We were told by the management to expect a little bit of backlash from the guys — they had their own boys’ club I think and they weren’t particularly happy about females coming into that,” she said.

“But in saying that, the males I worked with were nothing but true gentlemen. There might have been a bit going on behind my back, but I ignored that.”

She said while her male colleagues were only trying to be considerate, she resisted their attempts to lighten her workload.

“They were wanting to take the heavy (part) of any lifts we did, or volunteer to push the stretcher, I said ‘no, no I’m here to do equal work’.”

Looking back on this 30 years later, it seems bizarre to think that an organization would fail to harness the determination and talents of women. But discrimination against women often starts at birth. Gender lines are drawn early and traditional roles for women are reinforced throughout their lives. These constant messages may lead to a false belief that women do not belong in certain fields of work. Thankfully this is changing. It has changed in our profession because of women who brought their ‘fold up chair’ to the table and demonstrated that they were just as capable as their male co-workers.

Science

“The cocks may crow, but it’s the hen that lays the egg.”
—Margaret Thatcher

Being the father of strong and capable girls, I often wonder why we spend so much time talking about the differences in genders. Are we really that different?

The answer is yes, and no. While there are definite gender related differences, there is often a blending of characteristics between sexes that produce a spectrum of male and female traits for each gender. Each of these traits is important to survive in the world of prehospital care where critical decision-making and skilled interactions with our patients are critical.

Gregory L. Jantz, PhD, has studied this question more than most and I’d like to share some of his thoughts on the subject:

Scientists generally study four primary areas of difference in male and female brains: processing, chemistry, structure and activity.

Processing

Male brains utilize nearly seven times more gray matter. Gray matter areas of the brain are information- and action-processing centres. This can translate to a kind of tunnel vision when men are doing something. Once they are deeply engaged in a task, they may not demonstrate much sensitivity to other people or their surroundings.

Female brains utilize nearly ten times more white matter. White matter is the networking grid that connects the brain’s gray matter and other processing centres with one another. This profound brain-processing difference is probably one reason you may have noticed that girls tend to transition more quickly between tasks than boys do. The gray-white matter difference may explain why, in adulthood, females are great multi-taskers, while men excel in highly task-focused projects.

Chemistry

Male and female brains process the same neurochemicals but to different degrees and through gender-specific body-brain connections. In part, because of differences in processing these chemicals, males on average tend to be less inclined to sit still for as long as females and tend to be more physically impulsive and aggressive. Additionally, males process less of the bonding chemical oxytocin than females.

Structural Differences

Females often have a larger hippocampus, our human memory centre. Females also often have a higher density of connections into the hippocampus. As a result, women tend to sense a lot more of what is going on around them throughout the day, and they retain that information more than men.

The right and left hemispheres of the male and female brains are not set up exactly the same way. For instance, females tend to have verbal centres on both sides of the brain, while males tend to have verbal centres on only the left hemisphere. This is a significant difference. Girls tend to use more words when discussing or describing things and they tend to have more interest in talking about these things.

Blood Flow and Brain Activity

The female brain has a higher degree of blood flow in a part of the brain called the cingulate gyrus. Therefore, women will often ruminate on and revisit emotional memories more than the male brain.

Males, in general, are designed a bit differently. Males tend to reflect briefly on an emotional memory, analyze it somewhat, and then move onto the next task. During this process, they may also choose to change course and do something active and unrelated to feelings rather than analyze their feelings at all. Thus, observers may mistakenly believe that men avoid feelings in comparison to women or move to problem-solving too quickly[1].

Given these facts, there are obvious differences to take into account and we may need to answer a few more questions:

  • Are people with more female traits actually superior in ways that might make them better managers?
  • Are these differences actually caused by genetics, or by how we are raised?
  • And finally, how do these traits manifest themselves during an emergency?

Real World Issues

Kathryn Minshew is one of the most successful female entrepreneurs in North America. She has this to say about women in the workplace.

“Call it nature or nurture, there are differences in how men and women approach professional conduct, and facing these issues head-on will make us all more equipped to succeed.”

Current wisdom seems to suggest that there is a masculine mode of management characterized by qualities such as competitiveness, hierarchical authority, high control for the leader, and unemotional and analytic problem solving. There is also a well-supported argument that women prefer an alternative feminine leadership model characterized by cooperativeness, collaboration of managers and subordinates, lower control for the leader, and problem solving based on intuition and empathy as well as rationality[2].

While this is true, women are quite adaptable in leadership roles and can also lead through the traditional male model.

Research has shown that the tendencies for female leaders to be more interpersonally oriented and more democratic than male leaders weakened when leadership within an organization was male dominated. So, when women were quite rare in leadership roles, they abandoned stereotypically feminine styles. Findings suggest that women may tend to lose authority if they adopt distinctively feminine styles of leadership in extremely male-dominated roles. Women who survive in such roles probably have to adopt the styles typical of male managers[3].

But the world is changing. Since the ground-breaking book ‘Emotional Intelligence’ by Daniel Goleman, the male model of leadership has become outdated. In the modern world, the female leadership style has become valued and has paid dividends. Co-operation, employee engagement and team-work have not only become new management buzzwords, but also an important goal of most organizations.

It seems that the fold up chair is finally being replaced by the comfortable leather seat at the head of the board room.

It just may be that the hard work, dedication and determination to prove themselves equal has led many women to new heights.

The Future is Female!

An Ontario Grade 12 student made the CBC News recently when she wore a T-shirt to her high school with the slogan, “The Future is Female.”

At first, this upset the school and they asked her to consider the fact that her T shirt may upset the boys. However, the story went viral on Facebook and before you could say media frenzy, the world seemed to agree with her.

She made a very good case for herself and the process has uncovered some uncomfortable truths about gender equality:

Males are three times more likely to commit suicide than females but existing prevention programs aren’t as effective for males as for females.

When it comes to education, males now only comprise 40 per cent of university students. Statistics Canada says males are about 40-per-cent more likely to drop out of high school than females.

In experiments with professors from 371 colleges and universities across the U.S. they found “science and engineering faculty preferred women 2-1 over identically qualified male candidates.”

French researchers determined “women applying for high-level teaching positions in male-dominated fields” are favoured over men applying for positions in those fields[4].

While I’m not quite ready to say women are superior, it certainly looks like women have passed men in some ways and I couldn’t be happier. There is no place for discrimination of any sort in today’s society. The concept of holding someone back because of their skin color or sex has finally been exposed as a ridiculous position.

But have we gone too far? I think we have. We may have believed that our genetics determine and limit the capabilities of both genders. This is not the case. In fact, the major influences on our capabilities are environmental influences, “which include all the things that occur to us that make us unique individuals. These differences include variability in brain structure, nutrition, education, upbringing, and even interactions among the genes themselves”.[5]

This leads me to believe that those of us in the emergency services have all shared similar influences and upbringing. Somewhere in our past, there has been a common experience that has shaped us into the people that we are. We are very unique in terms of the roles we fill, and we may be well ahead of the curve in terms of true equality. In our world, you are judged on what you bring to work every day.

In our world, you must possess the best traits of each gender.

It’s clear to me that we need a balance of the best of each other’s capabilities to be successful in this unique field. Examples of this are common in our day to day work. When managing a patient’s airway or starting an IV, we must be very task focussed and our partner needs to help us by keeping an eye on the big picture. We must possess a high ‘emotional IQ’ when dealing with psychiatric emergencies, childbirth, pediatric calls and death and dying. This means we must be adept at sensing what is going on around us and reacting appropriately. On those awful calls where we are emotionally overwhelmed and suffer an Acute Stress Reaction, it’s important to reflect on the call and then move forward in order to heal. Rumination and over-processing of negative feelings or memories may lead to depression, substance abuse or even PTSD.

So there it is, after looking at the history, the science and the real world demands of our job we should have an answer to the question. Are women really superior?

I’ll leave it for you to decide. The girls will say ‘hell yes!’ and the boys will say ‘nope’. And that’s okay because a good natured rivalry between the sexes will always push us to be a better version of our selves. I hope this article has been as interesting for you to read as it was for me to research.

I’ll leave you with one final thought from Andrew Carnegie.

“Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives…is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.” 

About The Author

Mike Billingham has enjoyed a challenging 36-year career as a primary care paramedic, critical care neonatal, pediatric and obstetric paramedic, station administrator and educator. Currently, he owns and operates Creative Paramedical Education Ltd where he is fortunate enough to design customized courses for pre-hospital care.

[1] Gregory L. Jantz, PhD is the founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and an internationally recognized best-selling author of over 26 books related to mental wellness and holistic recovery treatment. He is also co-hosting the first-ever Helping Boys Thrive Summit on May 24th to discuss how brain science influences raising and educating boys. This article features excerpts from Dr. Jantz’s book Raising Boys by Design.

[2] Gender and Leadership Style: A Meta-Analysis Alice H. Eagly and Blair T. Johnson Purdue University, Psychological Bulletin 1990, Vol. 108, No. 2, 233-256

[3] Gender and Leadership Style: A Meta-Analysis Alice H. Eagly and Blair T. Johnson Purdue University, Psychological Bulletin 1990, Vol. 108, No. 2, 233-256

[4] David Millard Haskell is a social scientist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. He researches societal trends related to culture, media and religion.

[5] http://open.lib.umn.edu/intropsyc/chapter/11-3-is-personality-more-nature-or-more-nurture-behavioral-and-molecular-genetics/