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Giselle Aerni

MD & Founder of the Madam Athlete Podcast



Find your tribe & hear stories of professional women in athletics!

If you haven't yet, you must check out Madam Athlete, which is an outstanding virtual space where voices of women in sports and athletics are shared and heard. When launched, founder Giselle Aerni hit the ground running with her podcast series. These conversations resonate with all women, not just those in athletics. Every subject is tackled, the good and the bad...women’s hardships, life lessons and personal achievements.





The podcast series promotes the truth of life. It’s uncut and taps into the real time everyday acts that women face. So let’s break it down. Madam Athlete; a noun, a respectful yet formal way of addressing a female athlete. One who exhibits strength and determination. Someone who is constantly excelling and reaching past their limits while maintaining physical and mental stamina. Also, a space for these voices to be heard, and to take inspiration from. A network and community.


“For me it's interesting to see the careers of all these different women in all these different fields of sports and athletics because there’s so much and people don't realize. Their stories can resonate even if you have a different career, it builds life lessons.”

As a primary care sports physician, Aerni was (and still is) discontent with the way that women are being treated not just in sports and athletics, but in general. She knew it was time to make a change in her own life; to contribute to the fight for women equality and utilize her expertise to help. So one may ask, what is a doctor doing...an MD, quitting her job, dropping everything and starting an online community? Well, the notion had been stirring for about four years until she one day decided, ‘You know what? I'm gonna do this.’ She attributes some of it to the mental space that the pandemic allowed her.





Time was gained to reflect and ask questions to herself like, are you able to use your skills in the best way to contribute to the world or what do you want to do, are you happy? Feeling run down by the medical community and where she stood, she recognized her worth and knew her voice could reach more people. Why not create her own community?


How can I still serve this community and contribute? Use my passion but getting to do it on my own terms...getting to build it the way I want to build it. Without hospital administration, toxic colleagues, (the) patriarchy bullshit getting in the way. I can help create a community for women to easily connect to other women in their field, in sports, in their careers.”


Her life was comfortable and set, she had a great job and had just been awarded, ‘Faculty of the Year’, but she realized she wasn't happy and knew that she could do more. This is not to say that she hasn't had a wonderful career thus far. All that she has done professionally she takes pride in, and she is grateful for the relationships. There are so many lessons, experiences, and achievements that she can and does carry with her.


“The job I was in wasn’t allowing me to use my skills to help people the way that I want to.”


Backtracking, Aerni completed her undergraduate at Muhlenberg College and later her doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh. Going into college she had no visions of her future or what type of career she wanted. She was incredibly smart and was good with math and science. In her free time, she was an avid trainer, teacher, and competitor of the martial art form, Tae Kwon Do. All these elements came together and while she was entertaining the idea of different careers she officially decided to go to medical school. After completing her degree, her residency was in primary care, family medicine and then she spent a year at the University of Connecticut in her fellowship for sports medicine. She then was hired there, which she is incredibly thankful for because if it wasn’t for that position she may have never realized how much she wanted to teach.


“I love teaching and I love watching a learner when the lightbulb goes on.”

Right after her fellowship she got a job at the University of Connecticut where she realized then that she really liked working with college athletes. This is a time in someone's life that is filled with discovery, innocence and an unbroken determination. Students have their whole life ahead of them and have a willingness to

learn.


“This is a real transformational time in their lives (athletics), so this is a great time for me to actually make a difference.”

Her job was broken down into two categories. On one end, she was the team physician and took care of the athletes. The other, was teaching. She taught fellowship faculty, the upcoming generation of sports medicine physicians. Being faculty was rewarding for her as she was able to teach, train and mentor.


After years as a working doctor she became fed up with the toxic masculinity in the workplace systems and the ongoing fight for the struggle of gender equality. She realized there is only so much you can do to improve a situation internally and she knew it wasn’t serving her anymore.


“There’s only so much you can do within the system to try to work for change. Sometimes you have to be like, here is my line, I'm not ok with what's happening here so I'm going to go. It's no longer working for me and I can't contribute anymore. So here is how I am going to go outside of those systems to build my own, to support people.”

When she decided to actually leave, it was emotional. Aerni’s career was her identity and to step outside of that felt like she would be a failure. It took some time to realize that’s not the truth. She knew she could take all the skills that she had gained and translate them. It’s hard to to step out of a career that takes years to establish.



“Some of it is just breaking it down into little tiny baby steps. Then each new step got easier, less threatening and less scary to try something new.”

Making a leap like this isn't easy, no matter what it is. She, first hand, knows the importance of women's voices being heard because her own voice wasn’t, time and time again. Often, during meetings and conferences she was the only woman in the room. Throughout her years as a doctor she had many instances where she was treated poorly. Female doctors (compared to their counterparts) are known to have lower salaries, less promotions and deal with high levels of harassment.


“I’ve absolutely felt the sexist, patriarchal nonsense and how that gets in your way.”

She recalls multiple times where she dealt with sexism directly at the workplace. Such as a time when she had been in a position for years and would point out problem areas, request changes and discuss improvements that would never happen. She would be told things like, “You know, you're not working well with others.” Then a young white male was hired into a director role and was able to immediately fire people, rearrange the department and was looked at as being impressive and taking charge.


“A woman with the same skills, the same knowledge, the same training is going to be perceived differently...is not going to be given the same opportunities...is not going to be given the same respect. AND I’M PRETTY OVER IT.”

One large instance is a time where she didn’t receive a promotion because….well, she used a swear word...once. Now, don’t forget, she works in sports and athletics, it’s part of the industry, and kind of a thing people do. Aerni said, “It became a convenient excuse.” They clearly never did that to men. One more for the count, (she unfortunately has many), her and a medical assistant were giving an injection to a male patient and he said, “I’ve just been picturing you two ladies naked to get me through this.” Of course she expressed her discomfort. Patients exhibit these types of behaviors towards female physicians all the time.


“You can’t let it make you feel hopeless. As a woman that has been through it, I kind of have responsibilities to women coming up to be real honest with them about what has been great, what has been difficult... as I try to navigate through hard situations and what has not worked.”

She has experienced countless cases dealing with male abusive colleagues and in general toxic individuals. Rising out of this, she feels the undying need to take a stand for women equality. Despite the barriers and possible repercussions that could come with it she has decided to take action. Women are very outweighed in the medical field. Aerni says that now only 6% of Orthopedic Surgeons are women. Universities have seen an influx in female enrollment to the point where they are equally represented. Which is great, but there is still inequality. Males typically end up receiving more prestigious roles and higher paid positions. This isn’t even addressing the issue of women of color in medicine. Due to to a lack of diversity there is so much discrimination. It’s hard to even get into the field with all of the institutional roadblocks. Women of color face chauvinistic attitudes by many professionals, colleagues and patients.



With there being so much gender and racial inequality, women find a lack of mentorship and guidance. Aerni said that she often struggled finding mentorship. Many of her superiors were men who didn’t offer the help that they should have. It was a difficult setting, in every job. Every department was male dominated. Thankfully she did have some mentors along the way but it was always situational, more for whatever the task was at hand. With being a primary physician, part of her role was developing her own teams and a staff. Because of such a lack of support amongst her colleagues she built constructive, motivational and encouraging teams.


“I've worked more on building a community of people that are supportive. It’s part of why I got so used to building a multi- disciplinary team.”


By creating Madame Athlete, Aerni is able to teach and heal a broader spectrum of people than she was able to in her career thus far. She hopes that she can push peoples messages further into society and create a community through women's life stories. The podcast is just the beginning. There are big visions for the future. Aerni poses some questions. How can these women's stories coexist? How can we start a conversation, a community? How do we support each other? Sometimes you need to go outside of your immediate circle to find that.


“Sometimes it’s hard, it’s frustrating because there is still so far to go.”

Already, she herself has learned valuable lessons from Madame Athlete. She has learned new skills, networks with constructive and inspiring people and in general, just putting herself out there has given her confidence. By sharing individual career stories, she has gained inspiration. For Aerni, the podcast was the most sensible place to start.


"The success of every woman should be the inspiration to another. We should raise each other up." - Serena Williams

Plain and simple, it’s purpose is to empower other women. Eventually she hopes to create a program targeted towards professional development not just for women in sports and athletics but for everyone. One that can help people take steps in both their career and personal lives. This community will be a place where p