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Gender-blindness refers to a failure to identify or acknowledge difference on the basis of gender where it is significant. Gender-blindness occurs at all levels of medical practice and education and is often perpetuated by the convention of the usage of gender neutral language. Linguistically the ‘patient’ or ‘doctor’ are neutral whereas the physical person who is the patient or doctor is gendered. The use of neutral language and concepts may in fact obscure the importance of a person’s sex or gender in the health and professional development of individuals and in the environmental and structural sense, impedes the achievement of balance and equity.

The pervasiveness of gender-blindness in medical practice and institutions is so extensive that most researchers, educators, practitioners and policy makers are not aware of its existence until the meaning is fully explained and even then, it can be the source of a great deal of confusion and denial. Nobody likes to believe that they have been blinded to the genuine status and needs of patients, students, colleagues and communities by linguistic and social convention and yet many have, and will continue to complete their entire career unaware that it is even occurring. In this sense gender-blindness is much the same as systematic or institutionalised racism; you don’t notice it unless it affects you. The systemic pervasiveness of gender-blindness allows it to be perpetuated.

Medical Evidence

Gender-blindness in medical evidence refers to the lack of research, analysis and publication of sex disaggregated data, so no differences between men and women are mentioned. This form of gender-blindness has rested on the assumption that there is no difference between men and women. This perspective is being challenged by emerging evidence. It also refers to the lack of gender-competent problem identification and research design. Important health issues and the experience of them differ between women and men and this is, as yet, rarely integrated into health research.

Medical Illustrations

Medical texts commonly contain diagrams that show the ‘human abdomen’ with a testicular artery, if not male genitalia. This is gender neutral language but it is a gendered representation of the human abdomen. Clearly the correct label would be male abdomen or human, with the female difference described.

Honorific Titles and College Memberships

The gendered nature of the language surrounding medicine is exemplified in the debate regarding honorific titles. Historically when a doctor became a surgeon he would revert to the honorific title of Mr and senior doctors within in hospitals referred to as ‘Mr’ were very rarely mistaken for anything but a surgeon. However the convention for female surgeons is less obvious; do they become Miss, Mrs of Ms or retain the title of Dr? And with these titles they are commonly mistaken for many things, but rarely a surgeon. A similar issue of title was difficult for male nurses for whom the traditional title of ‘Sister’ was problematic, the nomenclature changed rapidly to accommodate male nurses.

No such change has been made to accommodate the admission of women members to the Learned Colleges (medical professional associations). In Australia , as in much of the rest of the world, members maintain the masculine title of ‘Fellow’.

Content by Ann-Maree Nobelius, 23 June 2004