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It Seems Female Physicians Don't Factor Into Trudeau's Feminism

We're wondering why a prime minister who speaks glowingly about the societal contributions of working women can look right past us as if we don't exist.

08/09/2017 12:12 EDT | Updated 08/22/2017 09:23 EDT

Justin Trudeau frequently promotes himself as a feminist and supporter of women in the workplace. He tells us "we need women and girls to succeed because that's how we build stronger, more resilient communities." His recent budget hyped itself as the first ever application of gender-based analysis and he gives great advice to men who want to be allies: "don't interrupt women, and notice every time women get interrupted." (Hear hear!)

So perhaps when Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced major tax changes for certain small businesses that are incorporated, it was on the assumption there wouldn't be a gendered impact on the owners of health-care businesses. The shorter name for these business owners is "physicians," and they are up in arms over Morneau's suggestion that incorporated doctors are tax cheats.

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In spite of the well-worn image of a doctor as a grey-haired older man spending his free time on the golf course, a significant number of doctors are actually young to middle-aged moms, rushing straight home from the hospital or clinic to start their second shift with the kids. Fifty-two per cent of Canadian physicians under 45 are women, and this number is not static.Between 2011 and 2015, the number of female doctors grew three times faster than male doctors. In family medicine this change is even more pronounced, with women making up 59 per cent of the under 45 group and 65 per cent of the under 35 group. Yet despite Trudeau's many feminist-friendly statements lauding working women and their contributions, not a lot of us women in medicine feel that he supports us and our work.

That's why a petition was created a few days after Morneau's announcement, as physician moms nationwide looked at their finances and realized they were in danger of never retiring. Dr. Nadia Alam, president-elect of the OMA and a small-town family physician and anesthetist, writes that in addition to retirement planning, incorporation allows her to work demanding, irregular hours with four small kids and support her aging parents.

I have all the responsibilities and risks of a small business, yet the federal government doesn't think I should have any of the tax treatment.

Each woman in medicine is a female-owned small business that contributes to this country's heath-care infrastructure and economy. Physicians don't only provide their own labour, they fund other health-care staff, clinic space and medical equipment. A wide range of health-care infrastructure is paid for out of pocket by individual physicians, and a growing number of these physicians are women with young families like Dr. Alam and myself.

Later this month my son will celebrate his first birthday. I took six months off when he was born, although I would have liked to have taken more. Like other small business owners, I couldn't simply close up shop for my maternity leave. My patients still needed a doctor, the rent still needed to be paid and my staff still needed regular paycheques.

All of these costs were paid out by me (including paying the physician locum who covered my leave) and resulted in a tight financial squeeze during the months I was home with my son. I'm not complaining about my lack of maternity leave benefits, and certainly there are women in much more fragile financial positions who don't have maternity benefits, either. My point is that I have all the responsibilities and risks of a small business, yet the federal government doesn't think I should have any of the tax treatment available to other types of small businesses.

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau walk from Trudeau's office to the House of Commons to deliver the budget on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, March 22, 2017.

More unique to physicians is the deferral of saving for retirement because of the relatively late start to our careers. Another thing frequently deferred is starting a family, as is common for women who spend longer in school (doctors typically spend at least a decade in post-secondary studies). I had my first baby in residency, pushing back the start of my working life, as did many of my female colleagues. The lack of a pension or maternity benefits for most physician mothers presents a special challenge: having already delayed the start of your work life, what is the cost to your retirement savings if you want to have a baby? Last year, when I was a 36-year-old pregnant family physician, this question was frequently on my mind. And like many other female doctors, I'm the breadwinner in my family, and a breadwinner without maternity benefits can sometimes feel stuck between a rock and a hard place.

So when Trudeau calls himself a feminist, is he thinking about the women who fund health-care infrastructure in this country through their small businesses? I'm not sure he's aware how many of us are also the breadwinners for our family and how difficult a position that puts us in when we become mothers. It's obvious he isn't considering how being working moms in medicine disadvantages us in saving for retirement.

We're wondering why a prime minister who speaks glowingly about the societal contributions of working women can look right past us as if we don't exist.

Trudeau seems himself to have succumbed to the popular image of the older male physician on the golf course. This entrenched idea makes us hard-working "lady doctors" (yes, I have been called that MANY times) who are raising young families feel invisible, when what we really are is a major, growing demographic within health care. And since we also fund health-care infrastructure directly out of our female-owned small businesses, we're wondering why a prime minister who speaks glowingly about the societal contributions of working women can look right past us as if we don't exist.

Certainly the Liberal government doesn't want to be seen as the purveyor of empty feminist platitudes, however, that's already a well-establishedcriticism. The recent budget paid lip service to the idea of encouraging women to move into senior-level positions, yet medicine already is a key avenue for women to move into prominent positions in health care. Hamstringing the female physicians ready to do the hard work of health-care leadership can hardly be seen as supportive of working women. This policy will destabilize one of the few fields where women having been claiming the kind of success Trudeau waxes poetic about, and I don't see very much that's feminist about that.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog suggested Finance Minister Bill Morneau was ending incorporation for certain small businesses. In fact, he announced major tax changes that impact certain small businesses that are incorporated.
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