As Surgery is still a largely male-dominated field, it might seem as if women do not ‘have what it takes’ to make it in this field. But the truth is that surgery is a very diverse field in which all kinds of skills and traits are needed – none of which are determined by the shape of one’s genitalia. So what are the characteristics required for working in Surgery? Here is what men and women working in this field think.
“There needs to be a cross-section of personality types because there are different sorts of operating and different sorts of operating suit different sorts of people. I was never going to be an orthopaedic surgeon. It was never the kind of operating that I enjoyed. It has less patient contact, I think. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but they have less patient contact, I think, and that suits them as personalities. It does need different horses for the different courses in Surgery.”
“You’ve got to have the mind to do it. You have to be able to concentrate for long periods of time. You’ve got to be organized and meticulous. You have to have a love for detail. You’ve got to be meticulous about every little thing because it all counts. Being female helps. I don’t want to be stereotypical, but you’ve got the empathic way and you relate to patients, you can ease them. Because when you’re doing surgery day-to-day you forget what a big deal it is for patients. You see patients going in and coming out of the theatre all the time but for them it’s the first time they stepped into a hospital and they are going to hear all these scare stories and it’s about them having faith in you as a caring physician. I think surgery is not about just getting and done ‘let’s whip it out, stitch them and close them up’. It’s the whole holistic approach. And I think being female has helped getting that holistic side into surgery.”
“On the technical side you have to be a good technician. You have to be technically very good and that’s independent [of gender]. Maybe because women have smaller hands and are more precise sometimes, they are better at doing fine surgery. But it depends very much on the character. On the personal side, I think most women have a lot of empathy. I’m not saying that most men don’t have a lot of empathy, but it’s probably a more female characteristic and it helps you do the job.”
“It’s not very feminine to play with hammers and drills and things and people suggest you need muscle power but that’s why there are machines. You can find a way to manipulate bones. The main thing is to know how to do it, not to have the muscle power.”
“We (women) have in spades what you need to do the job. We can team work, we can communicate, we have great manual dexterity. But what we bring to the table mostly is a lack of ego. It’s a view towards collaboration, it’s a view towards the patient: This is a patient, this is not about me; this is not about my private practice; this is not about me being the most successful or most powerful person in the world. And I think women are much more able to focus on that aspect of care – at least more readily. The blokes do it, but it takes them a little bit more of a journey to get there.”
When talking about areas in which women remain under-represented such as surgery the lack of female role models is a frequently mentioned key problem. More often than not the solution then seems to be to just present girls and women with a woman in a stereotypical male occupation. But is it really that simple? An interesting study by Laurie Rudman and Julie Phelan suggests that it is not.
The authors presented biographies of men and women in either stereotypical or counter-stereotypical professions to female students. So while one group read about a female nurse and a male surgeon, the other group read about a male nurse and a female surgeon. A control group read about animals. Contrary to what might have been expected, the women who had read about stereotypical men and women as well as those who had read about counter-stereotypical men and women both showed less interest in “masculine” professions compared to the control group. It is easy to see why this happened in the group that read about stereotypical men and women: Their gender stereotypes were activated and reinforced. But what about the other group? After all the students in the counter-stereotypical group had just read about women who could succeed in surgery! The authors’ explain this finding by something called upward comparison threat. This effect refers to the fact that when comparing oneself to someone more successful, rather than feeling inspired, one often feels threatened as the success seems unattainable. In other words, rather than thinking “She can do it, so I can probably do it as well”, female students may have thought something along the lines of “Wow, she is so successful. I don’t think I could ever be like her”. This in turn lead to them perceiving themselves as even less fit for atypical professions then before exposure to these “role models”.
So does this mean that female role models are useless at best or even detrimental? By no means. It simply shows that the way in which role models can benefit women in surgery and other stereotypical masculine professions is not as simple and straightforward as one might think. It is not enough to just throw a successful female surgeon out there and hope for the best. It is important that other women can relate to her, feel that her success is attainable and thus get inspired to follow her footsteps.
Surgery is a challenging career, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. Here is what some women and men in surgery have to say about why it is so great to be surgeon:
“You’re changing lives. It is a real privilege. You get the opportunity to really engage with people at a really important point in their lives and to make a difference.”
“The smile on the patient’s face when you told them that you – well, not cured them of cancer – but that you had taken away that mass. I think you can’t do that in any other specialty other than surgery. You can’t fix something – of course there are medicines and drugs but they don’t give an instant fix. It’s so rewarding when you’ve done an operation and you’ve done it on your own. You’ve fixed that person. It’s brilliant. It’s a really good feeling.”
“I love how it’s different every day. You’re dealing not only with patients, I’m dealing with the parents as well as the children. It’s not a desk job. You’re working closely with physicians, the nursing staff in wards and theatres. What I love about it is that with surgery you have a direct effect on patients. Whatever you’re doing – you’re taking out that cancer, you’re repairing the hernia, you’re doing something with your own bare hands that helps that patient. … It’s fun, it’s practical. It’s intellectual and practical at the same time.”
“The best part of the job in my current specialty, which is orthopaedics, is that it’s such a team effort. Surgery in general is a team effort, especially in the operating room. It’s a flat system, there is no hierarchy. Anyone can make a call to say ‘oh, this is wrong’ or ‘you need to check this’, so it’s not a case of ‘the surgeon said it and that’s it’. … And also, there are a lot of people involved – Physiotherapists, nurses, occupational therapists – and it’s with the involvement of everyone, that team effort, that you achieve a save discharge for the patient.”
“It’s a wonderful live. It really is. It isn’t a job, it’s a life’s work – which is why I’m still doing it, even in retirement.”
Speaking of work-life-balance – what do surgeons in other countries and cultures think about this issue? An answer to this question comes from Kazumi Kawase and colleagues who surveyed a sample of female surgeons from the USA, Japan and Hong Kong China.
Their results are quite interesting. Among other things they show a discrepancy between ideal and real priorities for participants both from the USA and Hong Kong China. Both groups mention home life as the ideal number one priority in their life, but acknowledge that in reality they prioritise work over their home life. For Japanese Surgeons, both the ideal and real number one priority was work.
However, this prioritisation of work over home life does not mean that they cannot start their own family. The majority of women in all three groups was married, and most women in the USA and Japan (72% and 61% respectively) also had children.
Maybe most importantly, work satisfaction was high among all three groups despite the apparent discrepancy. So while surgery is a challenging – and in all three groups a very time consuming -career, it is ultimately rewarding enough to make up for it.
If you are interested in reading more about this study you can find the abstract and a link to the study here:
The attitude and perceptions of work-life balance: a comparison among women surgeons in Japan, USA, and Hong Kong China.