By Cheryl Tan-Jacobson ’85
*EDITOR’S NOTE: Although this book was expected to be published by the time this review was printed, the publication of this book has been delayed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 circumstances. We will notify you of updates as they become available.
As a woman who has spent over 30 years balancing a career in medicine against maintaining a grip on family life, I would have thought I knew everything there was to know about how to navigate the world of medicine while being female. As it turns out, I thought wrong.
Reading “Building My Village: A Woman’s Guide Through a Career in Medicine” was like diving into a pool of warm water, welcoming and buoyant. I felt surrounded by people who got me — who understood the challenges I faced and illuminated other struggles I was spared. I found myself wondering where this book was 30 years ago when it would have served as a much thumbed through reference book on how to do my life.
“Building My Village” is written by an assortment of authors, each chapter covering an aspect unique to being a woman in the world of medicine as seen through the eyes of that particular writer(s). The writing styles vary, but the format throughout follows the script of delineating the particular challenge being addressed, providing some biographical examples of women facing these struggles, and concluding with some clear recommendations of how to approach the issue described. I appreciate that the editors asked that recommendations be backed up by supporting literature, thus ensuring that these are not just one person’s opinion, while also providing an opportunity for the reader to dig deeper into solutions should they desire.
When the topic of women in medicine comes up, the issue most people think of is how we can achieve a balanced work and home life. While this particular dance is addressed in the book, it was a surprise to discover so many other challenging situations my colleagues face, such as doctoring as a woman while divorced, single, parenting a special needs child, climbing the career ladder, or even dealing with challenges of communication. Where I have instinctively learned through the years that my no-nonsense plain-speaking style of communication could be interpreted as overbearing and “witchy” (with a “b”), the chapter on communication was particularly instructional. If you are a woman, it should come as no surprise that how we speak is judged by a different measure than that used to judge men. The authors present the challenges women face speaking to their colleagues, patients, nursing staff, bosses, etc, and offer their advice on avoiding the worst of these pitfalls. The one that stands out for me is to “learn to use the spectrum of communication styles to your advantage,” recognizing that flexibility in all things, including how we use language, goes a long way to our success.
Chapter 11, titled “Bruises Under the White Coat,” was a revelation. I am gratified that it was included in the book, an acknowledgement that although strong and capable, some of us suffer untold horrors at the hands of supposed loved ones. By shining a light on the topic, we hopefully lessen the shame and isolation one might feel and allow healing and restoration.
Where the majority of the book serves as a guide for younger women starting out in medicine, the last two chapters were written for me. After more than 30 years of practice, the question “What next?” keeps popping up. I found the essays of Debra L. Stottlemyer ’86 and Nerida R. Bates ’94 to be tremendous food for thought as they explored alternate career pathways in medicine or life after medicine.
In short, in reading “Building My Village,” I felt like I had found my village: a no-nonsense, understanding, empathetic, and ultimately wise village of my peers.
Dr. Tan-Jacobson is a wife, mother, and pediatrician. She currently lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, Brad, and their two sons.