Editor’s Note: This is part two of Dr. Bensen’s reflection on her challenging path to ACEP leadership. Part one appeared in the April 2018 issue.
In 1982, when ACEP was 14 years old, after five tries, I became the first woman elected to the ACEP Board of Directors. Until then, ACEP had been a man’s world. Administrative assistant Kathy Syke sent me the same letter she sent to all Board members to ask us to wear suits and ties to the Board meeting because our pictures would be taken. Back then, Board members might show up in jeans, shorts, or even bathing suits. In red ink, she added a smiley face and a handwritten note exempting me from the request.
I showed up in my gray flannel skirt, blue blazer, white blouse, and pearls (standard casual business attire of the day). Right before the picture, I stopped the photographer to get a Board vote on the two gaudy ties I pulled from my pocket. That Board picture shows us all smiling broadly and me in my pearls.
Chipping Away at Bias
Some gender bias was just situational blindness easily overcome by humor, casual conversation, or Board discussion, like the notorious men’s room story captured on ACEP’s anniversary film. Some bias was deliberate, insidious, cruel, and never-ending, a painful story for another day.
I was counseled not to knit at Board meetings. Knitting kept me focused and always made me feel that I accomplished something, even during the least productive meetings. So I bought my first computer and, without the benefit of the internet, social media, or Google, often finished my Board-assigned tasks prior to leaving the meeting. It was several years before even staff members had computers. I later discovered that my actions were threatening because everyone assumed I was taking copious minutes. Amazing how big some imaginations can be.
At the Board meetings, Kathy and I were the only two women in attendance, and she was there to take notes. At the staff level, department heads who attended Board meetings were initially men. I was blessed with a phenomenal mentor-husband but had no female mentors on the Board. As usual, back then my very capable ACEP mentor was the secretary. She who controls the minutes controls the world.
My physician mentors were in the shadows. Initially, Ellen H. Taliaferro, MD, FACEP, and I would meet at ACEP meetings. Then, we were joined by Carol Rivers, MD. However, these were the days when the guys would make jokes about “conspiracies” if three women were talking together, regardless of who they were or the topic of conversation. When Marsha Ford, MD, FACEP, completed our foursome, we began to meet, separate from ACEP, for a week every few years. We were each allotted a day during which we laid out our issues, concerns, questions, and ideas for the group to ponder. Phone calls and shared adjacent rooms at the Scientific Assembly filled the gaps between retreats.