Every week in March, UKNow offers perspectives on this national observance and their own life experiences from women at UK HealthCare. This week’s Q&A features Ashley Montgomery-Yates, MD, a critical care physician at UK HealthCare and senior vice chair of strategy in the UK College of Medicine’s Department of Internal Medicine.

Q: What Does Women’s History Month mean to you?

Montgomery-Yates: Women’s History month is about drawing attention to the hurdles that women have overcome in order to be viewed as equal contributors to society.  It is a time to pause and remember that the lives of the generations of women before me were very different than what I am experiencing.

Q: What are some of the challenges you've faced as a woman in your profession, and how have you navigated them?

Montgomery-Yates: One of the most challenging times was around the birth of my children. Navigating the first year of life with nursing and fatigue and physical changes while also trying to practice medicine was difficult.

I have a very supportive spouse who helped support our entire family, but it was still hard. Leaving rounds to pump in a random bathroom, trying to study for boards while averaging 3-4 hours of sleep a night, trying to figure out how to get the baby from daycare to the pediatrician for shots and checkups, constantly being sick from a baby in daycare were all added stressors to my first few years of medical practice. 

I think some of these pieces are better today (lactation rooms and more focus on postpartum depression and mother health after birth) but many of the issues are still in play as we expect women to work right up until birth and then return in 12 weeks.  

Q: In your opinion, what are some of the most pressing issues facing women today, and what steps can be taken to address them?

Montgomery-Yates: I think the biggest issue today is the lack of equality in the home environment. As women have moved into the work force, the expectations and responsibilities at home have not been redistributed. Most of the women I know are still doing all the cooking/cleaning/child care and also earning outside income. Women feel torn between two worlds and are rarely able to give their full attention to either space. I think this creates tension and guilt for most women as neither job is being done well.

Q. Who are the women who have inspired you most?

Montgomery-Yates: As a young college 20-something, trying to find my place in the complex world of adulthood, I met a UK professor named Nikky Finney. She was an English professor specializing in poetry at the University of Kentucky and was a woman of color who had grown up in the Deep South. 

I had a friend who knew someone who knew her, and I was invited to a small dinner party at her house on a Friday evening and arrived with no expectations. Most of the people in attendance were older than me and had established identities as leaders in some capacity around Lexington. I remember being slightly intimidated by the topics and intensity of the conversations, but also in awe of the strength of the women in that room. 

I grew up in a small southern town, and I knew that I was more assertive, more driven, more opinionated that most of the women in my life, and for the most part my parents had supported those parts of me. But this group of women made me seem passive and shy. They were so well-informed and yet also very different; they listened and conversed about very complex social, financial, and political issues with a knowledge and openness I had not seen in most of the women in my life. And at the center was Nikky Finney. 

I remember thinking that I wanted to grow up and be as articulate and intelligent as she seemed, but also as big and strong.  She was unapologetically herself and lived her life much as she wrote her poetry, wavy and complicatedly emotional. Over the next few months, I had the privilege of interacting with her several times and she was always asking me the hard questions, forcing me to think about why I felt guilt or behaved in certain ways. She encouraged me to live my life “in a single frame,” always focused on not being a different person in different spaces but living genuinely all the time. She also loved openly, and verbally expressed her love for her friends in all environments, which was very foreign to my southern lady roots.

I am not sure the Nikky Finney would even know who I am today, but her impact on my development was huge. She was the first women I knew who did not appear influenced by the societal pressures on women to be small, unemotional, or unambitious. She made me realize that just being me was enough.