Although the number of women entering medical school has been steadily rising in the U.S.A., female medical students continue to report instances of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. The full spectrum of such experiences and their effect on the professional identity formation of female students over time remains largely unknown. To investigate these experiences, we interviewed 12 third year female medical students at a private New England medical school over several points during the 2006-2007 academic year. Using theoretical frameworks of gender performance and the centrality of student-patient and student-supervisor relationships, we were better able to understand how female medical students interpret the role of 'woman doctor' and the effect of negative and positive gendered interactions on the evolution of their professional identity. We found that participants quickly learned how to confront and respond to inappropriate behavior from male patients and found interactions with female patients and supervisors particularly rewarding. However, they did not feel equipped to respond to the unprofessional behavior of male supervisors, resulting in feelings of guilt and resignation over time that such events would be a part of their professional identity. The rapid acculturation to unprofessional behavior and resignation described by participants has implications for not only professional identity formation of female students but specialty choices and issues of future physician workforce.
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