Are Women in Surgery Less Confident Than Their Male Counterparts?

Research in achievement domains such as the workplace and education shows that while men over-estimate their performance, women under-estimate how well they are doing. This is especially true in areas that are stereotyped as being “masculine”. It could thus reasonably be expected that this would also be the case in surgery.

However, Rebecca Minter and colleagues investigated this issue in a study and found that this wasn’t the case. While they did find a trend such that female general and plastic surgery residents under-estimated their performance to a greater extent than their male counterparts, this difference did not reach significance. There were also no gender differences with regards to actual performance.

Together with the study we reported on last week, this is promising. It seems that the perception of women in surgery as less competent is changing not only in the general public, but also in the eyes of those women who are involved in surgery themselves.

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Stereoypes, They Are a-Changin’

While women are generally seen as more warm and caring, men are perceived to be more competent. Unfortunately, these stereotypes are especially pronounced in male dominated fields such as surgery. However, a study by Kamyar Noori and Allyson Weseley gives hope that these stereotypes are slowly changing.

In their experimental study they presented men and women with the profile of either a male or a female physician who was either a surgeon (and thus a member of a male dominated field) or a dermatologist (a member of a female dominated field) and then asked them about their perceptions of warmth, competence and willingness to see the physician. Surprisingly, neither specialty nor gender influenced the perception of competence. Women, even those in a male dominated field, were perceived as just as competent as their male counterparts. Interestingly, the stereotypes around how caring the physicians were perceived to be depended on who was asked: While men rated female physicians as more caring regardless of specialty, women tended to rate those in counter-stereotypical fields (i.e. the female surgeon and the male dermatologist) as more caring.

Overall, this study gives hope that gender stereotypes in medicine may indeed be changing. Go humanity!

Are Female Doctors With Young Children Less Motivated?

No. No they aren’t. Although it is often claimed that career motivation suffers from having children – at least for women – a study by Berber Pas and colleagues from the Netherlands finds that this is not necessarily the case. Neither being a mother nor the age of the youngest child significantly predicted career motivation.

What did matter, however, was one’s view on motherhood. Those who had more traditional views on what a mother ought to be (e.g. spending most of their time with their children) were less motivated than those who had more modern views on this issue. Moreover, a supportive work environment – especially supervisor’s support for one’s career goals – was beneficial for career motivation of female doctors.

This clearly shows that the negative attitude of some employers towards working mothers – or those who might one day become mothers – is quite unwarranted. Instead, it is important to focus on supporting female doctor’s career goals and changing unrealistic expectations of what a “good mother” is.

Career Satisfaction of Female and Male Surgeons

Despite the low number of women in surgery, those who do decide to become surgeons generally report high job satisfaction that does often not differ very much from that of their male counterparts. However, do they achieve their satisfaction in different ways? A study by Nasim Ahmadiyeh and colleagues investigates this issue.

They interviewed a sample of male and female surgeons who were all married and had children using semi-structured interviews and found, among other things, that men and women in surgery did indeed report similar levels of career satisfaction. In addition to that they also did not differ in the degree to which they had made trade-offs between their careers for their personal lives or vice versa. However, when talking about the reasons for their satisfaction and dissatisfaction, men and women differed. While male surgeons mostly named internal job characteristics as reasons for dissatisfaction, female surgeons spoke much more often about a lack of support and lack of credit. Furthermore, women also seem to rely on different strategies for success. They stressed the importance of social networks – professional as well as personal – far more than men did. This, of course, makes sense if they experience a lack of support.

These findings indicate that networking opportunities such as Women in Surgery are indeed very important and beneficial for female surgeons as they address the lack of support experienced by them.