Female role models are often thought of as a solution for the under-representation of women in certain fields such as surgery and there is indeed quite some research that backs up the fact that women make more effective role models for other women and girls. However, other research shows that this is not the whole story.
A study by Sapna Cheryan and colleagues investigated the effect of stereotypical (“nerdy”) and atypical (“normal”) computer science students on women’s interest in the field. They found that gender did not matter, but that those interacting with an atypical member showed more interest in computer science and believed that they could succeed in the field more strongly. The reason for this seemed to be that women saw the atypical computer science students as more similar to themselves.
Now, the stereotypical traits for a surgeon are certainly different than those for a computer scientist. Nevertheless, both stereotypes have more in common with traits typically associated with men (e.g. competence for computer scientists and assertiveness for a surgeon). So in a way, these findings are quite promising as they suggest that both men and women can inspire girls and women to become surgeons as long as they are seen as atypical and, more importantly, similar to oneself. This illustrates an important point about role models: We need a diverse range of role models in surgey – after all, nobody is going to be seen as similar to oneself by everyone. And if we want surgery to be a diverse field, we need to make sure that we communicate that it already is.
Male dominated organisations are often thought of as an “old boys’ club” with the members favouring one another and rolling their eyes at gender equality initiatives. However, that is certainly not always the case. The Harvard business school, known for being a rather sexist environment, has recently gone out of the way to bring about gender equality. Reactions were mixed, but a New York Times article nicely illustrates how things can indeed be tackled and changed, despite a reluctant majority.
Although women remain under-represented in surgery even today, there are some extraordinary cases of women in surgery dating almost a century back. This article, titled “Australia’s female military surgeons of World War I” tells the story of three women who worked as surgeons at times in which women in medicine were sailing against the wind much more than today. These stories are informative and inspiring and definitely worth a read!
As women continue to carry a larger part of the responsibilities regarding housekeeping and childcare, it is not surprising that they generally find it harder to achieve satisfactory levels of work-life-balance in occupations that are generally associated with long working hours such as medicine. A recent survey study looked at how the perception of hospital doctors’ work-life-balance was related to burnout and intentions to quit their job and how whether this depended on gender.
The author found that work-life-balance was the most important predictor of burnout and that support from superiors and co-workers as well as working in a family friendly environment significantly lowered burnout. Interestingly, support from co-workers was the most important factor for female doctors, whereas support from one’s superiors and working in a family friendly work environment was more important for male doctors. Similarly, work-life-balance and support for co-workers were related to female but not male doctors’ intentions to quit, while working on a rota working pattern was predictive of male but not female doctors’ intentions to quit. Overall, women also reported higher levels of burnout.
This is interesting, as it shows that reducing burnout and retaining skilled doctors, might be achieved quite differently for men and women. It also shows that the fact that women are still responsible for the majority of domestic tasks is reflected in their higher need for a work-life-balance and that this issue needs to be addressed, both at and outside of the workplace.
Mentoring is an often quoted path for career success in medicine and other careers alike and there are some studies that corraborate this idea. A study by Stamm and Buddenberg-Fischer investigates this notion in the field of medicine using a Swiss sample.
In their longitudinal study they examined the influence of mentoring during specialist training and found that, indeed, having a mentor and receiving psychosocial support from a mentor during this time was related to higher career success both in objective measures such as such as academic advancements and subjective measures, as well as career satisfaction. Receiving career support from a mentor on the other hand was related to subjective and objective career success, but not to career satisfaction. With regards to gender, about 60% of men but only about 41% of women reported having a mentor during their specialist training. The authors argue that these issues could and should be resolved by formal mentoring programs. Interestingly, however, their study indicates that gender of the mentor might not be as relevant. Women and men in their study did not differ with regards to the preferred gender of their mentor.