I love conferences. By the end of the first day, people are walking around with their name badges heavy with business cards. The smoke from the gears turning in people’s heads as new ideas are worked through hangs low around ankles but doesn’t darken pathways; it carves them out. By the last session of the event, we are exhausted and glowing, synapses firing that may have been sleeping for the last 364 days.
I recently came back from EMS World Expo in New Orleans, and the environment felt like it always does: hot, rich, ready. I’ve always come to these kinds of gatherings because I wanted to update practices or expand on concepts. This year I was looking for something different. Sure, I needed to see what was going on in the use of capnography and wanted to touch back to hyper-k, but my role has changed recently, and I found myself looking for one of these perspective pioneers to give me some kind of…stock.
I took a position as a course coordinator for my local EMT training program. The coordinator before me, Bill Voelkel, had died suddenly, and while he was a pillar in the community, the program format had not changed much since he started it. I approached the director of the class, we sat and traded ideas, and after a year of planning, I found myself behind a desk in a sim lab office absolutely freaking out. What had I done or whom had I fooled to sit in this touch-of-modern office chair, and when were they going to find me out?! I am not at all fazed by blood and guts (still very uncomfortable around dead things), and I had to buy dress pants and girl shoes and show up to meetings, and let me tell you what, imposter syndrome is so real.
I found it was hard to reconcile my new role with the people I worked with because of my own biases and preconceived notions of how I was “supposed” to act. I’m just a paramedic, so I don’t belong in an office. I only hold a certification, so I can’t be qualified to have a voice. Then the deepest bias hit me: I’m just a woman, so no one is going to listen to my perspective, and my opinion doesn’t count for much. I sat for a second with that, because somehow my genitals had defined my worth for what I realized was a long time.
Trace that feeling back to cultural roots for a moment, or even caveman days, and you find being female and being meek or submissive meant you were protected. It meant we had a shelter to live in and tiger skins to sleep on. We’re humans, and we crave stability, but the definition of stability has changed since we had to kill dinner. Still, I found when it came to speaking to my male counterparts or attempting to fill the shoes of an established and beloved male figure, I felt lacking because I had already devalued my contribution.
A Little Girl Power
I perused the conference sessions as I planned my trip and saw there was a women-in-EMS panel being held. What the hell, I could use a little girl power. I thought it would be a group of women who were going to praise themselves for having vaginas and being lucky enough to be given seat at the table. That’s how I felt. What I walked into was a powerhouse of humanity. The range of these women stretched from one end of the country to the other, across the spectrum of service. Women who had seen the beginning of paramedicine, who were the first women to enter and be paid for practicing their craft, who headed up revolutionary branches of the field that developed genuine providers, thought leaders, educators, advocates.
This was not a spiritual awakening; I was not transported to nirvana. I was, however, a little starstruck. As they answered questions, these women revealed that my biases were also theirs at one point; they just got over them. It may have taken work, but they were now considered leaders in the industry. I wanted that. I want to lead and change and inspire, like these women had done for me.
As the talk progressed, there were points that made me nod my head. Lillian Bonsignore, the first female EMS chief of the FDNY, put my fears into perspective by asking a simple question: “Do you want change, or do you want credit?” Simply put, you can actively participate in the differences you want to see and weather the pushback, or you can take a secondary role behind the ones who have the cojones to make moves.
What does this have to do with being female? Everything. I think sometimes we see ourselves as being the ones who constantly have to push and prove ourselves because we are female. We focus on the validation of our sex instead of championing ourselves as worthy participants. There’s a distinct difference between championship and teaching. It’s not my job to carve a place behind the suits at the photo op, it’s my job to move the wheel of change and get things done. What’s between my legs has nothing to do with that ability.
Men are not the problem. Culture is the problem. I’ll wait here if you want to go back a few paragraphs and reread about caveman days and its lessons on protection and security. I’m 6’2, and people still see my hourglass figure on a scene and approach my male partner before me. I’ve had people address my male director by name and stare at me in confusion when I spoke up in meetings. I did an experiment once where I went a week without makeup on the truck and was blatantly disregarded by male and female physicians when I gave report, but with my hair done and my makeup on fleek, I was seen and heard and even called “sweetie” a few times (gross). The culture says my worth is still in what kept me in warm caves and good furs.
Men are our partners; we sit next to them in ambulances or offices for most of our week, so it’s not fair to demand equality and then assume they can’t change a mind-set because of what’s between their legs. You can teach your partners in the advocacy for yourself. It’s a thing that culturally comes easy to the rougher sex, so step up to the plate. Bonsignore made another good point: The male connotation of some of our career options takes the possibility of our participation away. Fireman, policeman, even the pictures you see of scientists are typically male. She says, “Can the women come too?” in response, and it quietly puts the inclusion bug into the ears of the people in the room.
Know It, Own It
We have to own our shit too. Tracey Loscar, EMS chief in Mat-Su Borough, Alaska, was on the panel, and her major point summed up to “Know your shit and own your shit.” We must teach other women in the field that we have a place and aren’t meant to be subservient; that being the girl in the tight pants who can’t lift is not cute, it’s demeaning. When we mess up we have to say so. When we succeed we have to celebrate it.
When it came to leadership, Ginger Locke, of the Medic Mindset podcast, nailed it: “Women tend to want to wait until the perfect time to step into a role. We wait until we’re ready, and that’s not always going to be a thing.” Loscar piggybacked: “Don’t hesitate. Most of the things I regret are a direct result of my own hesitation.” We as women are not possessive. We feel like we can’t say no, and it’s hard for us to ask for things we need because it could compromise that security we crave. It’s the part of my mind-set that had to shift. Sitting at the table means I’ve had to learn lots of things on the fly: how to argue effectively; how to use the words “yes” and “no” with conviction; how to be assertive in the face of being called aggressive; how to cry in my car after a hard day and how to come back afterward. Learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable has been a journey that seems to have been shared by the panel. I felt vulnerable, but I wasn’t alone. I learned I needed a team, a tribe, to lift me up when things weren’t working out.
I’m writing this in my office and reflecting on that hourlong session. It offered perspective and was exactly why I come to these gatherings. I have a lot of work to do, and some of that is in my own mind-set. Eileen Filler, one of the first female paramedics on the panel, said, “Keep pushing—don’t let anyone tell you you can’t,” and the words have resonated with me. In this role, in my new life, I wake up most days with too many tabs open in my brain and not enough bandwidth by about 8 p.m. I lose sleep over students, and I have projects to conquer that I’ve never thought I was capable enough to attempt. I’m underqualified, I’m too stupid, I’m a girl.
These fears and struggles are not foreign to the women in that room. I fangirled out a bit when I met them because they stand rooted in the confidence I want to have. I get it now, I think. I’m wearing shoes that crunch my toes and sometimes make my back hurt. They’re not my work boots, but I stand in them anyway. I stand in this room anyway. I am a leader and a woman. Deal with it.
Anna Ryan is an EMS educator and blogger from New Jersey. She is a regular contributor to The Overrun podcast.