It seems strange to me, that when women have shattered the proverbial glass ceiling in innumerable fields, the statistics of women in surgery are still so low. At an astonishing 11.1%, the only heartening news is that it was once as low as 3% in 1991.
Why isn’t the field of surgery evolving with the current shift in workplace demographics? Why aren’t women choosing to pursue the seemingly impossible journey that is surgical training?
Why are so few of us women, studying medicine, not drawn to a career that inspires such awe, pride and prestige in the single word, “surgeon?” Is it because of distorted perceptions that see this plum role more suited to agentic males that are perceived to be assertive, able, task-orientated and competitive, as opposed to women that are often thought of as only nurturing, sensitive and communal?
Speaking to young female medics and doctors, many speak of concerns about the gruelling and intensive training, the impossibility of being able to maintain a work-life balance, or conversations about deskilling if time is taken out for child care, and the one that riles me most, the gender inequity and pay gap that still exists in the surgical field.
To prove their point, statistics show that over 50% of women that take up surgery, drop out during their residency years, quoting dissatisfaction, disillusionment or burnout. Not encouraging at all.
And yet there are those, like me, that are undeterred. In ICSM Surgical Society’s committee of 30, 13 of us are female. We ignore the voices in the back of our minds telling us, “What if I can’t have a family? What if it’s too hard? Why do I need this headache when there are easier options?”
We ignore them because we are inspired. Enthralled. Awed.
We need not look far for role models.
Emeritus Professor Averil Mansfield became the first female Professor of Surgery in the UK in 1993. As founder of Women in Surgical Training (WiST), she spent her career encouraging and motivating women in the field to pursue surgery, now enjoying her retirement with her husband, also a surgeon.
Similarly, Miss Clare Marx, consultant orthopaedic surgeon, is currently the first female President of the Royal College of Surgeons, England and happily married. Professor Farah Bhatti, consultant cardiothoracic surgeon, is a dedicated advocate and role model as Chair of Women in Surgery Forum for the Royal College of Surgeons, England.
Take Miss Helen Witherow, consultant maxillofacial surgeon who absolutely loves her job, is married and the proud mother of two. Or even, Miss Lizzy Elsey, general surgery trainee, undertaking a PhD, married with two children having utilised less-than-full-time training.
How about Miss Ingrid Bennett? Trauma and orthopaedic registrar; married and mother of two adopted sons.
Miss Isobel Jones – full-time plastic surgeon at Chelsea & Westminster Hospital – married to a fellow orthopaedic surgeon with two children, aged 9 and 11. See a pattern? Yes. Successful women that are prominent in their careers, pursing academia, are spouses and raising children. It can be done.
Leading as full a life as their male counterparts, these women lead by example in showing us that women need not be held back by gender stereotypes or perceptions. It’s women like these that inspired me to join Imperial’s Surgical Society within my first term of university. Young and with rose-coloured glasses, my mind was set on pursuing a career in surgery. Four years of exposure to the field, consisting of innumerable heated conversations mixed with intimidating realisations of the hurdles ahead, and sometimes disheartening tokens of advice from jaded medics and surgeons I meet, I often have to keep referring back to these role models to remain encouraged.
It may be an overwhelming journey to embark on, but with the support of each other, and our inspiring community of strong women who continue to disprove stereotypes, we need to keep striving to be respected women in surgery and in turn, inspire those around us.
As Caprice Greenberg says, ‘It’s not a glass ceiling, it’s a sticky floor.” And we can choose whether we want to adhere to it or not.
Join us to be inspired at Imperial College London on Tuesday 14th March to hear some of these truly inspirational role models share their incredible journeys, as we come together over a wine and cheese reception to celebrate the women in surgery of 2017. For further information and to find out how to register, visit the event page here.