Woman Up!

I supervise trainees as part of my life as a medical professor. Some are quite timid. While I am always eager to be present to provide close supervision, it is important to me as a teacher that they have the courage to take a stand in public on what they think matters and what ought to happen. Until they risk embarrassment they will never learn how to watch people closely enough to make diagnoses. I do try to use levity to make this transition into something like adulthood a bit easier for them, and for a while I would tell them to “Man Up” and take a public stand on what they think the diagnosis is or the treatment should be. One morning, all the trainees were being timid again, and I was about to encourage them to Man Up when I realized that they were all women, and I remembered the famous truism that “the opposite of man is boy, not woman.”

So I told them to “Woman Up!” This was simple enough to do and say, but it made me stop and think just exactly why I would prefer to use the standard idiom. Did I really mean that courage is just a matter of the hormone testosterone? What about the fascinating data suggesting that men (particularly young adult men) are the least able to bear pain? What about the incredible women I have known in my life who are bold, courageous, and righteous? So now I’ve started using “Woman Up” to encourage men or women who need to be stronger in a positive way, and I like the effects that I’m seeing. There is real power in language. I’m even trying myself to woman up when I find myself in a difficult position where a little more courage–the kind I see in my mother, my wife, my sisters, my daughters, and so many of the other woman in my life whom I love–could improve a situation.

I’m aware that this may make me susceptible to accusations of being “PC,” a bizarre term that doesn’t even make sense to me. If that is really, really your problem with my modified idiom, God bless you and keep you.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I like it. What was the reaction of your charges to your revised formulation?

  2. My sense is that people have liked it. Jarring in just the right way.

  3. Nice…however, PC doesn’t even make sense to you? Really? How very PC of you.

  4. Capo sink says:

    I think the effect on the hearer will largely depend on thon’s preconceptions about gender and language. I like the idea of attributing the virtues to both sexes equally, but “Person up!” isn’t exactly pithy.

  5. Meldrum the Less says:

    I wish not to disparage the greater truth being illustrated in this discussion by whacking at the specific example. But one thing medical students have discovered is, in that highly technical and competitive field, if you keep quiet you are assumed to know more than if you speak up and remove all doubt of your ignorance. Their silence might be a smart strategy for obtaining an acceptable grade with less effort.

    I was recently hospitalized and it was not long before every medical and nursing student on the ward was in my room asking questions. When the student realizes you have no viable mechanism of hurting them they will open up. I heard a folk tale that Dr. Max Winthrobe, the infamous Hematologist at the University of Utah (edited Harrison’s textbook of Internal Medicine for many editions) used to routinely check himself into the hospital under an alias to enhance his ability to teach (and later punish) those in training. In the larger context when we realize some of the things we fear are not as bad as we think, we find the courage to do better. Man or woman.

  6. I love it. For so many reasons.

  7. Meldrum the less: I am only a first year medical student and thus might not yet know exactly what rotating in the hospital is like, but so far I have come to feel that the student who says nothing is the student who doesn’t know anything–especially in small groups. I think attending physicians can see right through a timid student who keeps quiet because of uncertainty.

    I have to admit I have never had anyone tell me to women up yet, and I’m not sure how I would react.

  8. medstudent, I offer that encouragement with intentional warmth and laughter. My goal is to encourage not to frighten.

  9. This could really bite you. Chances are, someone will eventually get offended. It can be a distraction from the actual issue at hand.

    Are you trying to say that women are braver? That’s what it might sound like. As well as perhaps condescending.

    If it is a gender-neutral characteristic, which bravery is, then why not use a more generic term like, “Gut it up” or “Show your spine.” Both body parts, and perhaps appropriate to med students.

    In the Army, we talking about “gutting it out” when faced with a challenge–having the guts to do what was needed.

    But more seriously (and geeky), what research about pain in young men? I worked in a pain lab for a few years, and the conventional wisdom was that women had less pain tolerance, or no difference, consistent with the meta-analysis published last year in PAIN by Racine et al. “A systematic literature review of 10 years of research on sex/gender and experimental pain perception – Part 1: Are there really differences between women and men?”

  10. StillConfused says:

    You could always say “grow a pair” and leave it to their imagination to figure out what pair you were referring to… both men and women have pairs.

  11. Kids nowadays say someone has the “lady balls” to do something. (Can I use that term here?) I think woman or man up sound equal to me. It’s only not PC to tell timid men they are being “little girls” or to tell women to be more like a man (implying that being female is an insult or less valuable). I know plenty of women who are very courageous, as you do.

  12. Naismith (9) – I think you’re overthinking just a bit, and fearing hypersensitivity. I’ve got in trouble for not being sensitive to hypersensitive people before, but only for calling the weather ‘gay’ at my workplace. As a woman, I see nothing wrong with this. It’s just a fresh look at an old idiom if you ask me.

    I love it, I’m going to Woman Up and get on with my day now!

  13. It won’t hurt the (exceedingly fragile, if you believe the male-rights activists) psyches of modern males to see courage associated with women for once. Women have been eating it for thousands of years, and nobody ever stopped to fret that it might be a distraction then. It probably will make people uncomfortable, but awakening to new paradigms always stings a little bit. The only way to avoid that pain is to stop thinking, and why should we make it easy for the people around us to languish in a pool of intellectual stagnation?

  14. Ha!!! Will be implementing this in my daily speech! Awesome :)

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