Does working part-time mean I’ve failed as a feminist?

Issue: BCMJ, vol. 65, No. 8, October 2023, Page 277 Editorials

I recently made the decision to work part-time in my clinical practice. The change allows me more space for my nonclinical work, like boards, volunteering, research, and teaching. It also gives my younger colleagues more time to grow their patient rosters and improves the attention I can give to my current patients. However, despite the (defensive and rambling) justification that I feel compelled to lead with, I feel uncomfortable admitting that the main impetus for stepping back from clinical work is, in truth, family.

When my husband and I were both working full-time, I now fully recognize that there were multiple days per week when my kids might not see either of us in the morning or at bedtime. We persevered this way while our kids were toddlers, coping day-to-day with two nannies, supportive grandparents, and millions, yes millions, of work-related Aeroplan miles. If we can say that any good came from COVID-19, for our family, it was the travel hiatus that kept us close for 2 years. But when travel and in-office work returned, I found myself increasingly sympathetic to my kids’ tearful pleas to have the family together “like we used to be.” They’re old enough now to be aware of the differences in a so-called “post-COVID” time, having spent their formative early years in and out of lockdowns.

In his current job, my husband cannot work part-time; therefore, it makes sense for me to adjust my career at this stage in our life. So why do I feel like a failure for the feminist cause?

I suppose I should explain the use of the “F” word in this editorial. Feminism means different things to different people. It can be alienating and polarizing, particularly to those who associate all types of feminism with radical feminism, perceiving it as being overtly antipatriarchal and inherently antimale. For a long time, I hesitated to use the “F” word because I did not fully understand the concept. However, as a gynecologist and women’s health advocate, I have now become comfortable enough in my skin and my lived experience to call myself a feminist. I believe in equal treatment of all sexes, be it political, economic, or social.

Historically, a man’s career and education have been prioritized over a woman’s in relationships. This is just one contributor to the societal expectations and gender discrimination that mean women make 87 cents on the dollar compared with men.[1] (A gap that is worse for racialized women, newcomers, Indigenous women, women with disabilities, and trans women.[1]) It may also underpin the “surgical sexism” described by Dr Chaikof and colleagues in the Canadian Journal of Surgery, who concluded that “the lower reimbursement of the surgical care of female patients than for similar care provided to male patients represents double discrimination against both female physicians and their female patients.”[2]

I do worry about becoming a statistic, another example of, as Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote in a great article for The Atlantic, “why women still can’t have it all.”[3] I feel like a feminism failure because I am consciously stepping back from my clinical work to do more of the home work, which we all know is unpaid and often unrecognized. I know there is no shame in homemaking; the shame is in the stereotype that it must be women who do it. I have also questioned the reality of part-time work. Many women remark that it becomes “full-time work for part-time pay.”

Had our situation been different, my husband might have been the one making the change. For now, I am satisfied with my choice, and I know that nothing is permanent. It may actually be my belief in feminism that allows me to make the proactive, independent choice to live more life with my family. Time is a nonrenewable resource, and Instagram constantly reminds me that 90% of the time you have with your kids is before they turn 18. (Why do sentimental montages of strangers’ kids get me every time?!)

As I tell my kids: fair does not always mean equal. I’m going to have to go with that for now.
—Caitlin Dunne, MD


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1.    Ontario Pay Equity Office. The gender wage gap. Accessed 17 August 2023.

2.    Chaikof M, Cundiff GW, Mohtashami F, et al. Surgical sexism in Canada: Structural bias in reimbursement of surgical care for women. Can J Surg 2023;66:E341-E347.

3.    Slaughter A-M. Why women still can’t have it all. The Atlantic. July/August 2012. Accessed 17 August 2023.

Caitlin Dunne, MD, FRCSC. Does working part-time mean I’ve failed as a feminist?. BCMJ, Vol. 65, No. 8, October, 2023, Page(s) 277 - Editorials.

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Rita McCracken says: reply

Dear Dr. Dunne,
Thank you for sharing your experience as a feminist, who is also a physician, managing your time in the modern world. Your experience is shared by many, many others. There is a still a real, measurable gender gap in opportunities. And, if the medical profession wants to address that, we need to make systemic change, not place the burden on individuals to decide if they can act like "they have it all".

It is time for our professional physician organizations to stop observing the differences (ref: *and* *and* and make real change to remove the burden of sexism from individuals and replace the structures that created it in the first place.

I admire Anne Marie Slaughter's work, but wonder if Audre Lord's wise words might not be the better source for women to draw on at this time, "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare."

Let's ask more of our profession and our peers to help solve these problems!
Sincerely, Dr. Rita McCracken

Cecile Andreas says: reply

Dear Dr. Dunne,

Thank you for sharing your experience. I share so much of your experience, and with my children now adults admire your commitment to your values in your choices.

I wonder if a less binary question might be helpful? How does your decision to work part-time support the cause of feminism? Exercising choice might be the most important contribution any of us can make.

To paraphrase Dr. McCracken… you are a warrior.

Thank you for sharing this important perspective.

Cecile Andreas, MD

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