Climbing the Surgical Career Ladder as a Woman

While women are under-represented in surgery in general, this under-representation is even more pronounced among surgical leaders. Nevertheless, there are women who have made it to the top of the surgical career ladder. How did they do it and what can we learn from them?

Rena Kass and colleagues can give us some answers. They interviewed ten female surgical leaders and asked them about barriers for women in surgery and how to overcome them. Almost all participants mentioned overt discrimination as a major barrier. For example, one participant explained:

“I would go on interviews and people would ask ‘What makes you think that you can tell a group of … mostly male surgeons, what to do and that they are going to listen to you?’ They would phrase it in various ways but … they were all really asking ‘Look, you’re a woman, you’re soft spoken, you don’t look like what we expect, what makes you think … you can come here and run the place?”

Other obstacles mentioned included the lack of effective mentors, a hostile work environment and personal illness.

So what do you need to overcome these barriers and make it to the top? The majority of participants mentioned perseverance and resilience as one of the most important attributes necessary to overcome barriers. As one of them put it:

“perseverance and not taking ‘no’ for an answer. When I was in high school the guidance counselor told me that women did not become doctors … then, when I did not get into medical school, the pre-med advisor … said ‘why don’t you just settle down and be an engineer?’ I said no, I want to be a doctor … I reapplied and got in. When I got out of my training and didn’t have any publications, my chairman said, ‘it’s going to be an uphill battle, being an academic surgeon’. I said, well that’s what I want to be. So I would say … the thing that distinguishes the ones who make it through to the end is perseverance, desire, and drive.”

Other important attributes included being hard-working and passionate, having a good support structure and communication skills.

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