Guest Blog: Take it Like a Man

Oooh, exciting! This week we have a guest blog! The awesome Tiffany from Surgery at Tiffany’s (a blog which I can highly recommend) has kindly agreed to share her response to out post about whether or not women in surgery are less confident than their male counterparts.

If you are interested in guest blogging on this site some time, please get in touch. It would be great to make guest blogs a somewhat regular thing! But now, without further ado, here is what Tiffany has to say:

When I was accepted into plastic surgery training back in my mid-20’s, I was the only female plastic surgery trainee in the state. There was only one female plastic surgeon working in town, but she was trained overseas and imported into our hospital. She was my mentor and ally. She told me stories of her training and gave me valuable insight into the minds of my male colleagues.

When I first started training, I used to get upset about every little thing. She used to shake her head at me and said that I should toughen up, use my stiff upper lip, and basically grow a tough hide. But it wasn’t until she said to me ‘Take it like a Man’ that I realised to succeed and survive my training, I needed to be like my male colleagues. I needed to be one of them.

Behaviour

Short of wearing pants and ties, I started to observe my colleagues. They don’t cry when they get upset (well, maybe only when they were very very drunk), and they tell you as it is when they are. However, when I started to behave like one of the boys, people’s response to me was completely different. When one of my male colleagues started to rant and rave about something that had not been done for his patients, deathly silence ensued, and the nurses scrambled to do his bidding. When I mention that a certain instruction was not followed, nurses shrugged their shoulders at me and I was called a bitch behind my back.

Once, I watched one of my colleagues brush off a female patient’s concern as if it didn’t really matter. The patient reacted by shrugging her shoulders and put it down to ‘he’s a man, he doesn’t understand.’ Yet when I inferred a similar response to her complaint, she carried on about how that I was an unsympathetic doctor and should have been more understanding of her feelings.

So I learnt my lesson. I had to be tough like a male, but I needed to behave like a female, because my co-workers and my patients expected me, as a woman, to be more perceptive to their feeling, to be gentler, thoughtful, considerate and compassionate. All the qualities of their mothers.

Competency

And yet what did people expect of my abilities as a female?

There are several facets to this issue. Firstly, people make assumptions that you understand certain aspects of their lives, or have specific skills because you are female. Patients often tell me that they have specifically chosen me as their surgeon because I am female. That they know I will pay more attention to detail, that my work would be more delicate and that I have gentler hands. I have found these ideas vocalised more from female patients, although the back-handed sexist compliment makes an appearance now and then from the male patients: ‘Female hands are made to do fine embroidery, your sewing would be better.’ This is all inference without evidence. Some of the best microsurgeons I have had the privilege of learning from, are male surgeons with big clumsy-looking hands who couldn’t sew a hem to save their lives.

Some tell me that I would better understand what results they are after because I am female. One of my specialties is cosmetic and reconstructive breast surgery. Even my colleagues have presumptions and send their wives to me as a preference because I would know what beautiful breasts are supposed look like. I have my suspicious that it was more because they hesitate to have one of their male colleagues handling their wives’ bosoms. I often joked with them that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and unless their wives are lesbians, what I thought would not really matter. Not to mention, as far as I was concerned, you are too big if you are bigger than me. Without fail, their gaze would lower to the A cup push-ups I wore hidden under my dress. The disappointment in their eyes when they come back up to my face is almost comical.

An interesting social survey that was done locally in my state by the Plastic Surgeons’ Society showed that majority of women preferred a male plastic surgeon for cosmetic procedures, but female plastic surgeons for reconstructive procedures (e.g. after cancer surgery, or for treatment of congenital deformities). I guess this may just be a reflection of the underlying reasons for these procedures. Most of the patients who have cosmetic procedures book in because they want to look attractive for the opposite sex, whilst those who have reconstructive procedures proceed for their own self-esteem.

But realistically, are male surgeons better than female surgeons? My personal experience is that overall, the common public perception is that male surgeons are more competent. It is not that unusual for my patients to ask for a second opinion specified to be from a male surgeon. It is also not uncommon that patient find it easier to accept an opinion (especially one that they do not agree with) from a male surgeon. Sometimes I would argue patients until I am blue in the face about my decision, and yet when my male colleague comes to the same conclusion, the answer is a meek ‘Yes, whatever you think is best, doctor.’ It is also not uncommon that when I am doing ward rounds with my junior male residents, the patients look to them to reassurance, assuming that they are the doctors in charge.

This perception is not just restricted to patients. I have had male colleagues who have volunteered to take difficult cases from me because they felt that it was stress I didn’t need or the procedure would be too long for me. I have had to stop myself being a ‘hypersensitive girl’ and ask them if they were questioning my competency; instead, I would often smile sweetly and tell them that ‘you are so thoughtful, but I really enjoy the challenge’. There is also no doubt that my male colleagues are particularly protective of me at times. Once I was bullied by a male colleague from another specialty, because he was not willing to accept that he made a mistake with my patient, an incident which I unfortunately had to bring up at the morbidity and mortality (M&M) meeting. The next thing I knew, two male surgeons from my department cornered the poor man in the tea room two days later. Ever since the incident, that particular surgeon seemed to be awfully fond of stairs when we bump into each other at the hospital lifts. The male protectiveness didn’t just come from senior staff either. When I have had to visit the secure unit (prison hospital) to see some patients with my junior residents, I have had male residents trying to protect me from seeing obnoxious abusive patients. Sweet, but totally unnecessary. I was more effective in getting the prisoners to comply with their therapy than any other surgeon. Apparently a pissed off female surgeon is a lot more terrifying than a male one.

Confidence & Self-Esteem

So with such behaviour surrounding female surgeons, you would think we have no confidence or self-esteem in ourselves. Yes and No. I believe these are two very different things.

Confidence is a projection, or a façade as I’d like to think. This is something a lot of female surgeon learn very quickly early on in their career, because a show of weakness or doubt, especially in front of our male colleagues or senior staff, was a sign we didn’t have what it took to be a good surgeon. Being decisive and making good clinical judgement is the crux of a good surgeon. Several times throughout my career it was emphasised to me that you could teach a monkey to operate, but you could never teach it to choose the right operation. Personally, I don’t think it is hard to project the illusion of confidence, because you see it around you constantly from all your colleagues. I don’t need to puff up my chest or spit at my feet, but when I announce my decision to the team, it is clear to all and sundry that it was my way or the highway.

Self-esteem, however, is another matter. It is no secret that females are more introspective than males. Looking at the gender difference in the psychology of cause and reason – females tend to blame themselves, and males tend to blame external factors. This is no different in surgery. How many times during an M&M have I had to listen to my male colleagues go on and on about how the surgical instruments they were using were old and unreliable, about how the patients were non-compliant, about how the disease was so advanced or that the patient’s anatomy was abnormal. Whereas I hear female surgeons lament about how they should have done this, thought about that, or even not have taken on the challenge in the first place. Whenever an unexpected problem occurs, the female will look inside themselves for reasons rather than recognise that sometimes the patient’s pathology defeats even the best surgeons.

This is something I constantly remind my female trainees (and myself from time to time). I tell them that there has never been any evidence that female surgeons are less competent than male surgeons. Yet, we have an innate inferior complex about ourselves. We tend to beat ourselves up when things go wrong. Then we are tempted to fall in a heap of self-pitying mess. I often tell them that we can’t ignore this female psyche we possess, if anything, it makes us a better surgeon because we are constantly evaluating ourselves. But we have to have the insight to understand that too much of it can be debilitating. Good surgeons should be able to move on from their complications, ‘failures’, and mistakes – to learn from it, and start the next case as a completely fresh problem. We shouldn’t be accumulating ‘baggage’ which erode our self-esteem, because our patients rely on us making the right decisions for them at every crucial moment – and the right decisions are never made when self-doubt takes over the decision making process.

Confidence and self-esteem does go hand in hand. The more self-esteem one possesses, the easier it is to project confidence. However, the biggest trick in the trade is to be able to take criticisms, scrutinies, mistakes and failures on the chin, and yet still project the same confidence so that both your colleagues and your patients will continue to have faith in your abilities. If being a female means you are more critical of yourself, this is not necessarily a bad thing, it just need to be moderated. Having good support from a sympathetic colleagues (male or female) can also go a long way.

Even though surgery is slowly being ‘infiltrated’(as one of my male colleagues like to put it), by females, it is still very much a male-dominant area of medicine; partly due to diminishing remnants of the ‘Old-boys’club’ attitude, but mostly due to its unrelenting hours and commitment. A career in surgery is unconducive for the stereotypical role of women – one of bearing babies, spending time with family, home making and baking cookies. Honestly, the only babies I see are those in the hospital, and the only baking I do is with a diathermy.

So until we have more female surgeons, and society start to see us as the norm, my belief is that we should Take it like a Man, but Give it like a Woman.

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8 thoughts on “Guest Blog: Take it Like a Man

  1. What a great guest blogger. Women are I think better at reflecting on their own actions and learning from them, I would agree that patients expect more from you, for example when breaking bad news. None of my male colleagues are expected to do tears and sympathy and hand holding, they leave the nurse to do that, but I find that patients and indeed nursing staff expect me to give more and that if I don’t they are critical. However, I am happy to do the tears and tissues stuff when it is needed as it is not very me to cough politely and turn away when faced with them. Very clever observation about the difference between confidence and self esteem from Tiffany, it is hard to deal with disasters and this is where you need colleagues and mentors. One of my male bosses asked me recently “what will we do about this problem of all these women wanting to do surgery?” I turned and said “get rid of the men who think it is a problem”. Glad that you have expanded this blog in this way, I hope it reaches lots of women in surgery. Another boss of mine likes the phrase “a surgeon should have the heart of a lion, eyes of an eagle and the hands of a woman” he likes it because he has size 6 hands, but now he has some girls to deal with it has taken on a new meaning.

    • Thank mrsjamesbarry. Looove your comment ‘get rid of the men who thinks it is problem’ 🙂 . And you know what people say about men with small hands…. (ooh, that’s a bit naughty). Which makes me realise that I forgot to mention: I don’t know about you, but I think in my theatre, since I am expected to be more sensitivie and genteel, the jokes are a lot cleaner and less offensive (most of the time!) 😀

      • Yes, I think so too. The jokes are generally not too bad, it depends on the nurses and on the case. When I get stressed in theatre I go quiet, unlike the men who start swearing. Hope your weekend on call was quiet, I am wasting time looking at shoes and handbags on net-a-porter when I should probably be reading the BJS. X

  2. Great post. What I don’t know about medicine, and female surgeons in particular, could fill an ocean, so I really enjoy your posts and your perspective and your sense of humour.

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