Fitting In or Opting Out?

Although the situation for women in medicine has changed quite drastically in the last couple of decades – in fact, women are now the majority of undergraduate students at med schools – women remain largely under-represented in surgery. This is reflected in how we imagine the prototypical surgeon. If I asked your aunt, your next door neighbour and the person who sold you your coffee this morning to imagine a surgeon, their descriptions might all differ slightly, but more likely than not they would all describe a heterosexual, white, middle aged man. Moreover, descriptions of his character would probably include traits such as “macho”, “pompous” and “one track minded”. But what implication does that have?

Well, we examined just that with a sample of trainee surgeons. In a survey study we asked participants to rate how much they perceived traits such as the ones mentioned above to be true for the prototypical surgeon and for themselves. Moreover, we asked them how much they felt that they fit in with surgeons, how much they identified with their occupation and their desire to “opt out” and leave their profession. We found that those who perceived themselves as being quite different from the prototypical surgeon also felt like they did not fit in. This, in turn, was associated with lower identification with their occupation and higher turnover intentions. Not surprisingly, women generally rated themselves as less similar to the prototypical surgeon than men, but nevertheless this pattern emerged for all participants, indicating that lack of similarity to the prototypical representative of a field can be problematic for everybody and is not just a gender issue, but an issue of minorities in general.

For those who would like to read more on the topic:

Peters, K. O., Ryan, M. K., Haslam, S. A. & Fernandes, H. (2012). To belong or not to belong: Evidence that women’s occupational disidentification is promoted by lack of fit with masculine occupational prototypes.Journal of Personnel Psychology , 11(3), 148–158.