Top of the Podium

When my attending stepped out of the room, the patient looked to me and asked, as many do, “How far along are you in medical school?” She was a sharply-dressed woman in her mid-eighties whose cane hardly slowed her down from flying in from Chicago that morning after visiting her grandchildren. Before I could answer her question, however, she remarked, “Oh, you are just so lucky! When I was your age, becoming a doctor wasn’t even a possibility that entered my mind. I was a nurse, but I always thought if I’d had that opportunity I would have made a great doctor.” As she went on to tell me how proud she was of her grandchildren who were pursuing higher education and wish me luck and encouragement in my studies, I was reminded again of how much I take for granted being raised in a world full of opportunity.

As this patient reminded me, women have opportunities today that those only a generation or two before us couldn’t fathom, and we are taking advantage of many of these opportunities. In 2011, for example, 48% of medical school graduates were women; compare this to 30 years ago, when only 27% of graduates in 1983 were women.1 Despite the fact that we are training more female doctors, however, these trends have not translated to healthcare leadership: only 18% of hospital CEOs and 4% of healthcare company CEOs are women.2  Why is this so? While the barriers to career advancement for females in healthcare are many, I’d like to focus on the most commonly cited by the 2011 Rock Health Survey of women in healthcare: self-confidence.2

Facebook COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg speaks to this barrier in her 2010 TED Talk where she focuses on what we can do as individuals to increase the representation of women in leadership positions. Using an anecdote about a class she took in college with her female roommate and her brother, she describes the tendency of males to exude confidence and attribute their successes to themselves, while females tend to attribute their successes to external factors including co-workers and luck.

Hearing this story reminds me of the ways I have come to witness this feature of the female psyche manifest in both myself and fellow female competitors at the CrossFit Games.

CrossFit as a whole has treated male and female athletes with equal respect and opportunity from its inception.3 Workouts of the Day (WODs) posted on CrossFit.com do not include scaling options for females or any other subset of the CrossFit community, suggesting that individuals may chose to scale appropriately but should not feel limited in any way, for example by age or gender. 40% of this year’s CrossFit Games Open participants were women, and on any given day one can expect to drop into a local CrossFit affiliate to find women besting men in workouts involving deadlifts, cleans, pull ups, and the like. CrossFit’s dedication to providing equal opportunities regardless of gender also extends beyond the WOD. Hope for Kenya mobilizes the CrossFit community to raise money to build water cisterns which free Kenyan women from their duties of traveling miles for fresh water each day. In doing so, young girls are provided the opportunity to pursue education and a brighter future. As the Sport of Fitness, the CrossFit Games, has experienced exponential growth over the past several years, it has also continued to provide equal opportunities for competitors of both genders. Prize money, now totaling well over $1 million is distributed equally among male and female competitors, and the number of segments featuring CrossFit Games events on ESPN2 are also gender-equal. Events including 2012’s Pendleton triathlon and 2013’s Pool and Row have also allowed male and female competitors to compete alongside one another, performing the same work.

Despite the abundant opportunities we have as female CrossFit athletes, natural differences between the male and female fields of competitors remain. While it seems that hard work, dedication, and talent should be the only factors distinguishing those who stand on the podium from those who do not, from my own experience and that of my peers, sport is another place where self-confidence can become our greatest barrier to success. Similar to Sheryl Sandberg’s story, a quick sampling of athlete profile videos on the CrossFit Games site will demonstrate that male competitors are more likely to outwardly express their desire and belief in their ability to win. Female competitors, on the other hand, are more likely to state that they “just want to do their best” or are simply happy to have the opportunity to compete. It comes as no surprise that the female athletes who do exude self-confidence and a belief in their ability to win including two-time champion Annie Thorisdottir, 2013 champion Sam Briggs, and 2013 runner-up Lindsey Valenzuela find themselves successful.

So why is it that women frequently lack confidence in their ability to succeed? Perhaps it’s a fear of vulnerability, not wanting to feel disappointed by falling short of a goal. As Sheryl Sandberg suggests, perhaps it’s a fear of not being well-liked, as research shows that successful women are far less likely to be well-liked than their successful male counterparts. Maybe, as Elisabeth Akinwale suggests, it’s a struggle to strike a balance between the virtues of humility and confidence. Self-confidence has been my own downfall as a CrossFit Games competitor in the past, and I can attribute its lacking to each of these reasons to some degree. Examining my career as a medical student thus far, I find similar instances where I wonder whether my own self-confidence has limited my performance. Most recently, for example, I was happy to receive a USMLE Step 1  score that exceeded the goal I had set for myself months ago – but what if I’d had the confidence to set that initial goal higher?

So, knowing all of this, what can we as individual women do about it? We are privileged to live in a generation where opportunity is abundant. There are too many other barriers to success in life to allow a lack of self-confidence to be one of them. This year, I’m vowing to set my sights on the top of the podium at the CrossFit Games. Sure, I might fall short, but if I do, I’ll know that it was because of my physical performance and not because of a lack of belief in myself. So, ladies, whether it’s looking toward the top of the podium, a stellar exam score, a career change, or a job promotion, let’s set our goals high this year and refuse to allow a lack of belief in ourselves to hold us back. Who’s with me?

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2012 CrossFit Games

This post was inspired by XX in Health Week, celebration of female leadership

_______________________________________________________

  1. AAMC U.S. Medical School Applicants and Students 1982-83 to 2011-2012. https://www.aamc.org/download/153708/data/
  2. http://xxinhealth.org/reports/
  3. http://journal.crossfit.com/2013/07/a-mandate-and-an-opportunity.tpl

45 responses to “Top of the Podium

  1. Such a great post, Julie! I love how you brought the two fields together — career and Crossfit. You make a good point about the men’s approach to the Games v. the women. I guess I’m often afraid to put a big goal out there for fear of looking silly. But, you can only win big if you shoot big. Thanks for the reminder. I hope to see you in the Games next year obviously! I missed you this year and I even got to attend in person! It was a pleasure meeting you last year at Reebok headquarters (I was part of the blogger group that came!) Hope med school is going well! — Ericka @ The Sweet Life (sweetlifeericka.com)

  2. Julie you have been a true inspiration to me. I am with you on this. My goal is to make it to regionals whether as a individual or a team. My lack of confidence in doing more has always been there and prevented me from achieving more. I was a gymnast for a long time but my lack of confidence was what hindered me in pursuing more in that sport. Having another opportunity at more in another sport I love gives me hope that I can find the belief in myself to achieve what I want. Thank you for your beautiful post and your words of wisdom. Good luck this year!!

  3. Hey Julie,

    Great read as I’m waiting for my first class in medical school to start. Reminded me of a quote by Michelangelo,

    “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”

    Good luck training this year for the 2014 Games! Look forward to seeing you compete.

  4. Best of luck Julie! Look forward to seeing you run the gauntlet in 2014!

  5. osting this. As a professional airline pilot I too have heard it all from passengers. I’m shocked sometimes to hear, most of the demeaning comments coming from older women (don’t worry there is a few ignorant comments from men). “Is this safe” “Two female pilots, I should get my money back.” “tell the pilot thanks for the nice flight (I was the Captain)” I have had several customers get off the plane and wait for the next flight in hopes that they would be flown by a male.

    I’ve come to realize the older women came from a generation limited to professions of Nurses, teachers, secretary and housewife. They were essentially brain washed from a young age that they couldn’t do a male job. I try to smile when I hear their comments.

    As a nation it is nothing short of amazing that women have come this far in such a short period of time in equalizing rights.

    Today, only 3% of commercial airline pilots in the United States are female. It wasn’t until 1973 that an airline was forced to hire women. I’ve read books and heard stories about how awful the men were to these women. I would have given up flying after the things they did to the first female pilots. I’m eternally grateful for all these women that kept chugging through with so much adversity and negativity in their jobs just to follow their dream.

    I’m happy to say that all my male co-workers are professional and supportive of all the women pilots. I’m treated not just as a women but a fellow co-worker with all the same qualifications as them. Now if we could get just get all the passengers to come to reality.

    I agree Julia, that women’s progress as a whole is stalled out. Our presentation in upper management position and government participation rates is dismal compared to other countries. We will get to the top of the podium eventually. We just need to keep chugging forward.

  6. I think it goes deeper… when I became a really good runner suddenly the girls I met liked me less than when I was just an average/above average person. Girls emphasize the equality between them while guys emphasize the hierarchy. To deviate from this norm inherently creates conflict between women as we deviate from the generally accepted way of functioning. i.e. a girl says I forgot my keys, other girls if they want to be that first girls friend will say oh i do that all the time. Hence in working towards outward equality amongst women we downplay our capabilities externally. How to push ourselves without alienating others along gender lines is a difficult matter. It is much easier in team sports as when I play soccer I can tell myself I’m the best out there, but it doesn’t matter because at the end of the day it is the best team and each person brings their own strengths and weaknesses. Individual sports such as cross-fit and running are much more difficult to navigate socially.

    **I’m a 3rd year medical student who was a nationally ranked runner for the first 1.5 years of medical school though nagging injuries are keeping me from returning. I hope to qualify for the trials in the marathon in either this or the next year.

  7. Reblogged this on nowhiteflags and commented:
    This is definitely food for thought!

  8. Lately lack of self-confidence has been staring me in the face. I’m so happy you wrote this post because I agree with you 100%. Thanks for posting this!

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  10. Cool post – interesting point on differences of confidence levels between males and females at the games. I think the fact that you are a medical student at a highly reputable institution and a elite level crossfit athlete says a lot about your confidence. You obviously have an abundance of confidence to make it as far as you have in either facet – Medical school, or the crossfit games. Looking forward to more posts.

    Greg

  11. This is a fantastic post and inspirational outlook for women all over. I am going to tweet and post this to all my MBA colleagues. I think this, not only hit home for me, but awakened me.

  12. Julie Rutherford

    Inspiring and uplifting read! Thanks Julie!

  13. It looks like to me whether it is crossfit games or exercise is important to have in all of our lives whether we are young or old. All is good!

  14. Crossfit athletes both male and female are incredible. It’s probably hard for many young people to fathom that it wasn’t that many years ago that women, blacks, etc. were limited in the opportunities they realistically had. It seems like ancient history, but it’s not. My own aside with men and women’s fitness comparisons just because I was talking to a class mate about it just yesterday relates to my time in the police academy. The standards for women were lower with respect to say the number of pull ups needed, etc., and even with pushups, women were allowed to do pushups from their knees. I found the whole thing ridiculous as when it’s time to have to fight for your life, Joe Criminal isn’t going to give a female cop any less of his fight than he will a male cop. He’s fighting that uniform. Still, most of the ladies we have on my force can hold their own with any of us men and I’m proud to call them coworkers and friends. Best of luck with your medical career. Try to have a sense of humor with your patients. I’m tired of fuddy duddy doctors!

  15. As a CrossFitter and medical student myself–eyeballs deep in the process of applying to residency programs–this post resonates with me. It is sometimes difficult to objectively gauge your competitiveness as an applicant to particular programs. For fear of aiming too high, I’ve been looking at some “less competitive” programs. Maybe I should think like a man.

    Congrats to you on passing Step 1! I found it difficult to keep up with training during some of my rotations (namely, Surgery and IM), and on days that I could get into the gym, I was sacrificing sleep. Hope you find a good balance and finish this year injury-free and on top of the podium! Best of luck during rotations and as you continue to pursue your goals!

  16. Wonderful story! thank you for sharing!

  17. well said Julie! i look forward to meeting my own personal goals and following yours! good luck in your journey.

  18. A nod to your creativity and energy bringing medicine, XF, and writing together. Congrats on your positive and exemplary achievements.

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  20. Julie, you can do it! I will be rooting for you through and through. Your confidence will take you far, but your work will take you further. Thank you for inspiring us all to take our own journeys, to look on ourselves with love, and to believe that everything is possible. We are made of possibility.

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  23. “…a quick sampling of athlete profile videos on the CrossFit Games site will demonstrate that male competitors are more likely to outwardly express their desire and belief in their ability to win. Female competitors, on the other hand, are more likely to state that they “just want to do their best” or are simply happy to have the opportunity to compete.”

    Why do you assume someone who is vocal about their desire to win and the belief that they will win has more self-confidence than someone who doesn‘t walk around boasting? Ask yourself this: Who are these men trying to impress with their claims? It seems to me that the more confident a person is the less noise they have to make about their abilities.

    If you’ve got it, bring it. What else needs to be said?

    Women know their strengths. We know we’re tough as hell. We know we’re winners if we come in first, second or if we don’t even race. We’re female. We HAVE to be tough. From day one. We’re born knowing we might have to raise babies on our own and that our sons might go to war and die and that we’re probably going to end up widows when we outlive our husbands. We know we’re usually physically weaker than men and therefore more apt to be sexually assaulted and that we’re probably going to make less money than a man for doing the same job.

    That said, it would seem to me the question would be, why the hell do men have ANY self-confidence when they’re the ones who cause most of the messes women manage to endure?

    To tell a woman that it’s wrong for her to not care as much about winning a race as a man cares is paramount to telling her it’s wrong for her to be herself. It’s a RACE. That’s ALL it is. We don’t CARE as much because we’re not silly enough to believe our existence hinges on our performance in it. It’s not giving birth or raising children or getting everything back together after a bunch of men have blown it apart so who really cares who wins????

    Seriously. Think about that.

    I’m over being told that the only way I’m valuable or proving to other people that I like myself is to act and sound like a man. A man is NOT the standard for self-confidence or value. Not for a woman at least.

    There are two sexes. Two. Stop trying to blend us into one.

    • I was with you until the statement “why the hell do men have ANY self-confidence when they’re the ones who cause most of the messes women manage to endure?”

      I’d say running 86% of the current Fortune 500 Companies is something to be self-confident about. I’m sorry, we make “most of the messes [you] have to endure”? I don’t see many women on the Frontlines presently. How much getting shot at have you endured throughout your life? How many Presidential terms have you held? You think you have it tough? Men have had the burden of founding our damned society.

      I love how Sandberg states that women in CEO positions have outperformed the average man in same position. Yet, according to her, women in those positions have had to overcome more obstacles and filters to obtain them. Seems to speak for itself, doesn’t it? How about we subject men to the same obstacles or eliminate them for women? I read a 2010 article in Business Insider about how, if that were to happen (thus leveling the playing field for women as for men) men would excel over women in those very positions.

      You are only able to “endure” because, throughout history, you’ve had men providing you with food and a roof over your head or with child support you think your laziness has granted you.

      You have not been the primary policy/decision makers, so you are not qualified to gauge the difficulties of tasks you imply men have complicated. As more women are assimilated into professional positions, they will have an equal role in “blowing things apart”, or “creating messes.”

      As women are assimilated into combat positions, they will be sure to screw things up. Currently, 74% of American/British women who are deployed in less stressful, non-combat positions are unable to complete their tours of duty due to injury. (There’s a mess that their male counterparts have to “endure” right there.) Were we to fill their positions with men, that rate would be closer to 12 percent. Firefighters and cops who are female have to meet lesser standards (and they LOVE to do this. Never will a woman fulfill her moral obligations to society by refusing to be hired under present qualifications). Female firefighters are 81% more likely to be injured, regardless of their physical health (NFPA, 2010); female cops purposefully avoid necessary physical altercations, waiting for men to handle them instead, and both typically cost their respective agencies $800,000 more per career than do their male counterparts. Yet, given such incompetencies, they have no problem putting our lives into their hands.

      Men have excelled in the realm of physical activity. That is why we tend to be more confident. (You state that men would not “need” to be confident , that their own abilities should be able to highlight themselves. Men are confident as a result of their abilities, not to further them, as Julie and Sandberg purport. Thus, for men, confidence is not the key to success, but the byproduct.) A woman can train/ work as hard as she would like in the realm of sports and there will always be a man to top her. This is why the statement “into a local CrossFit affiliate to find women besting men in workouts involving deadlifts, cleans, pull ups, and the like.” is a ridiculous statement. To imply that one can expect to do something means it will generally happen. Men have 60% more muscle mass than women. That you would expect to enter a gym where men and women are being trained accordingly and find women “besting men” is thus, a statistical improbability. Extremely rare, that is. Julie’s physique is by no means the norm for women CFers and still does not compare to many of the male CFers, just as her lift stats do not. And let’s not kid ourselves: women do more judging of other women than men do of them.

  24. Such a great message that I think I really needed to hear right now. Thank you!!

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  26. Great post! Thanks for the inspiration and reaffirmation :)

  27. Belief in one’s self is a huge determiner of success, as you’ve highlighted. I never correlated the self-confidence of the Games’ top female competitors to their success, but it absolutely makes sense. If you doubt yourself, you won’t push as hard. Every workout or journey I take that I go into with self-doubt leaves me feeling defeated when it’s all said and done. When I go into one (especially things that I’m excited about), I believe greater things are possible and feel accomplished.

    Thanks for the reminder to believe in myself regardless of the possibility that I’ll fall short of my goal.

    I hope med school is treating you well, and I CAN’T WAIT to see you at the Games next year- hopefully on top of that podium! HOPEFULLY in person if I get to go! :)

  28. This article give all hope to further there way of life no matter what it may be. Great story.

  29. Julie,

    I know your busy with clinics and all but could you do a post on how you studied for Step 1?

    I think all your med student admirers would be interested in that

    thanks

  30. Amazing piece. I treat and coach crossfit athletes and these very same concepts arise between males and females. I believe females are becoming more empowered to accept failure as a stepping stone to improvement as opposed to a limitation of potential. Yet, the tendency to fall back and not take any risk is still more prevalent in women compared to men. The trends may indicate that it is only a matter of time before this gap shortens and disappears, but the Crossfit mindset and posts like these definitely help speed that progression – WELL DONE! There is nothing more attractive than a confident woman.

  31. I loved your article! My dad used to say if we could only control our minds what we could accomplish! Your story was inspirational to me in so many ways. I was lucky to have been raised by my mother and three sisters. My father passed away when I was 12 of liver disease, so my mother raised us by her herself. It wasn’t until I was older that my mom confided in my that she used to cry alone in the bathroom so we couldn’t hear her. Her strength was my greatest role model. Anything is possible and never believe anyone or anybody that tries to discourage you. :0) Awesome article!!!

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  33. I love this! Self-confidence is the downfall of so many women. That’s actually one of the reasons why men tend to earn more than us – they ask for more at interview stage! It’s a powerful lesson for any woman to learn. Thanks for the great post.

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  35. Hi Julie!

    Love your posts; very moving and worded extremely well! I have to say, as a young CrossFitter you are definitely a huge role model for me, and for this I cannot thank you enough! Plus, going into my senior year of high school in Canada, I’m also looking to pursue the med-school route. Do you have any advice or tips for me in that regard? It would be much appreciated. Thanks so much!

    Cheers!
    -Vrajesh

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  37. Great read.
    Congrats on gettin’ PRESSED!!

  38. Julie – great post. I have written about similar gender leadership issues in my own profession — human resources (http://talentchatter.com/2013/03/12/women-lets-get-to-the-top-of-hr/), however I didn’t take the angle of setting our goals too low. Thanks for expanding my thinking on this!

  39. Part of it may be the differences between the male and female brain. The female brain has better left andright brain bridging…leading to greater emotional attunement in all situations. Men with their more divided brains find it easier to “compcompartmentalize”. Guys can more easily go all out to win and be cool afterwards. Even if a particular girl finds this easy and natural, she probably has competed with a lot of other women who struggle to not carry things off the field. It would be hard to feel and act confident as a competitor if your social attachments felt at stake.

  40. Good girl :) You’ve always set your expectations high…and I would expect nothing less! ;)

  41. Chad Norsworthy

    Julie Foucher, I wanna work for u as a nurse one day!! Haha

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