More women surgeons will increase the diversity of ideas and perspectives needed for excellent patient care.
As the first woman promoted to the level of associate professor in pediatric urology at Johns Hopkins, I’m very aware of the challenges faced by women interested or entertaining the idea of entering a surgical subspecialty. It’s historically a particularly challenging milieu for minorities and women largely due to ingrained societal and culture biases. A 2019 study published in JAMA Network shows that implicit bias toward female surgeons can even come from other surgeons. The study found that regardless of gender, surgeons more strongly associated men with surgery and women with family medicine.
Even though women now comprise more than half of medical schools’ entering class, there’s still a significant gap in the number of female surgeons. According to 2017 data from the AAMC, women make up less than one-quarter of 10 surgical specialties.
Why is it so important to tackle this gap in having more women in surgery?
I was recently invited to review a book by the faculty at University of Michigan: “Diversity Promise: Success in Academic Surgery Through Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.” One of the messages that’s consistent and clear is the importance of having a diverse team. Cognitive research shows that complex problems are best approached and solved by a diverse team of talented individuals from diverse backgrounds. The goal is to bring different ideas and perspectives to the table in order to take the best care possible of our patients. The challenge is attracting and retaining talented individuals from diverse backgrounds, genders, cultures, and socioeconomic status in order to maximize collective potential. The key is a supportive work environment that consistently demonstrates a genuine sense of equity, inclusion, and fairness across the board. Sponsorship and mentorship at every level within the institution is very important. And there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. According to 2021 AAMC data, there are just 24 female department chairs in surgery/surgical subspecialties in the entire U.S.
Dr. Cherisse Berry, division chief of acute care surgery and associate professor at the New York University School of Medicine summarizes this best: “I think it’s a mentorship and sponsorship issue, in the sense that you really need people in high leadership positions that are actually sponsoring and putting forth names of women in leadership roles.”
The current healthcare system is increasingly more complicated and difficult for physicians and patients to navigate. Having been trained and worked at major academic institutions, one thing that’s clear is that no one has all the knowledge, and we rely on each other to work through some very challenging medical problems. Thus, diverse medical teams that include female physicians’ perspectives and ideas take better care of patients. So as educators, mentors, and role models we must support a diverse array of trainees throughout their careers.
Here’s my advice for female healthcare professional trainees:
1. Identify mentors and sponsors early in your training and be proactive about connecting with them.
2. Your leaders want you to succeed. Check in with them as often as needed for guidance.
3. Trust yourself and believe in your self-worth. Build a community that will support you through your medical journey.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.