Inspiring Girls to Go Into “Masculine” Fields

Surgery is not the only discipline struggling to increase its number of women and while there are certainly differences in the reasons why girls lack interest in surgery compared to other disciplines such as engineering or physics, we can still learn from successful attempts to recruit more women into areas in which they are under-represented.

Robogals is an organisation that aims at increasing the number of women in engineering by showing young girls what engineering actually is and why it is fun. In her short and inspiring Tedx talk, Robogals founder Marita Cheng talks about how to spark interest in young minds – something that surgery could certainly benefit from as well.

Click here to check out her talk.

Barriers Faced by Women in Surgery

Surgery is a challenging career path for everyone, but what makes it apparently more challenging for women? What obstacles are in their paths that men don’t have to overcome? A study by Amalia Cochran and colleagues investigated this question by asking men and women at the end of their surgical training or at the beginning of their surgical career about a number of potential obstacles such as sex discrimination, lack of confidence, conflict between children and career demands and job market constraints.

While both female and male participants reported similar levels of structural barriers and career preparation, women reported that they anticipated or perceived to be treated differently from men, including negative comments about their sex. Female participants also mentioned having children as a career barrier.

These results are perhaps not surprising. However, they illustrate once more the importance of addressing gender inequality in surgery on many levels – from helping women with children to achieve a good work-life-balance to fostering a more egalitarian work environment in general.

The Effects of Talking About Gender Discrimination

Gender discrimination in the workplace is a controversial topic and some argue that talking about it might over-emphasize the problem and prevent women from entering fields in which they are under-represented. In fact, since starting this blog, we have received some comments along these lines on our posts ourselves, for example when talking about the glass cliff. These concerns are certainly not unjustified. However, knowing about gender discrimination might also help girls and women as it shows them that negative feedback that they might have received may not be due to their lack of skill or talent, but due to gender discrimination. So talking about gender discrimination seems to be a double-edged sword. But what does the literature have to say about this matter?

Weisgram and Bigler were intrigued by this debate and investigated how providing girls with information about gender discrimination in science influences their attitudes towards and interest in a career in science. Two groups of middle school aged girls took part in a one hour session with the aim of sparking their interest in computer science. After this, one of the groups also attended a session on historic and contemporary gender discrimination in scientific fields. The effects of the one hour session in itself proved to be rather disappointing. The girls were neither more interested in a scientific career nor did they feel more confident in their scientific abilities. What is more, after the intervention they had stronger beliefs that men were better at science than women. Interestingly, this was quite different for those girls who had been taught about gender discrimination: They felt more confident about their scientific abilities and had a higher opinion on science in general. However, their interest in science did not change.

Nevertheless, although the positive effects were limited, this study suggests that making barriers and obstacles that women face explicit does not have the suspected negative effects.

The Lack of Women in STEM/M Education

Our images of “the doctor” or “the scientist” as middle aged or older white men are formed early on and the lack of visibility of the women of those fields in text books and education in general is certainly not helping in attracting girls into these disciplines.

Luckily it seems that independent creators of educational content, for example on YouTube, are not following this trend. There are some great educational resources by women in STEM/M and about women in STEM/M out there and I’d like to share some of them with you this week – feel free to share them with your kids, your friends’ kids or anyone who might benefit from them. I shall go back to posting about research and the like in my next post.

Videos about women in STEM/M:

From the “SciShow: Great Minds” series: Elizabeth Blackburn, Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace, Jane Goodall, Rosalind Franklin, Barbare McClintock and Henrietta Leavitt


A few great STEM/M channels hosted by women (but there are many more):

The Brain Scoop, hosted by Emily Graslie, from the Field Museum of Natural History

Vi Hart – entertaining math nerdiness by .

I F***ing Love Science, hosted by Elise Andrew


Also: Happy Holidays everyone!

Gender Equality of Surgeons at Home

There are a number of studies about gender differences of surgeons out there – but are there gender differences in surgeons’ spouses? Although we have never asked ourselves this question before, we stumbled across a survey which investigated just this and thought it quite interesting. After all, spousal support is without a doubt an important factor in career satisfaction or life satisfaction more generally.

Interestingly, there was no gender difference in percentage of respondents who had children or in number of children. The myth of the childless career woman thus seems to be just that – a myth. There was, however, a gender difference in whether or not spouses had a job outside of the home. While 88% of male spouses worked outside of the home, only 55% of female spouses did so. Both male and female spouses indicated that they would be happier if their spouse worked less. Maybe unsurprisingly female spouses indicated that they carried most of the responsibilities for home and childcare whereas this was not the case for male spouses – and this held true regardless of the working hours of the spouse. This is problematic, as it indicates that female surgeons have an overall higher workload than their male counterparts – and while a number of initiatives aim at improving work conditions for women at work, the differential work load outside of the workplace remains largely unaddressed.

The Rejection of Successful Women as Role Models

Women in fields in which they are under-represented often name the lack of female role models as a barrier in their careers. Yet, research often finds that the successful women who are available are often rejected. They are seen as pushy, overly masculine and cold and generally not as someone most women can identify with – even when no information indicating these traits is given. But why is that?

A study by Parks-Stamm and colleagues suggests that this might be a strategy to protect our beliefs about our own competence. In other words, if we saw a successful woman as highly competent and on top of that as nice and likable, this might undermine our own confidence. After all, how are we supposed to compete with that? The authors tested this idea by presenting men and women with information about a highly successful woman. In some cases, this woman was described as warm and likable, whereas in other cases no such information was given. Unsurprisingly, both men and women in the former condition described her as less pushy and cold than those in the latter condition. What was interesting, however, was that those women who had been told that the successful target was warm and nice, rated their own competence as lower compared to those who were able to penalise the potential role model.

So what does this mean? Should successful women be presented as unlikable and cold? Certainly not. It is, however, important, that they are described in ways that make them seem attainable. Evidence for this claim comes from a second study by the authors in which they show that the negative effect of preventing women from penalising the role model disappears when they are given positive information about their own future success.

Where Does the Gendered Interest in Different Occupations Come From?

While women remain underrepresented in certain areas such as surgery, other occupations struggle to recruit men. There are a number of potential explanations for this phenomenon out there, including the idea that we show greater interest in occupations associated with our gender role (e.g. because we see a lot of women in childcare, we associate childcare with being female), and the idea that we seek out jobs that are in line with our values (e.g. because women have more altruistic values, they are more interested in childcare). It is of course hard to disentangle these two explanations – after all, while it might be the case that women rate altruistic values as higher, this could just as well be the result of seeing women in “altruistic” occupations.

However, Weisgram and colleagues investigated this question in a clever study which used fictional occupations rather than real-life jobs with which everyone has already formed aforementioned associations. They presented children, adolescents and adults with fictional descriptions of new jobs that were described as fulfilling a randomly assigned value and being mainly done by men or women.

They found that, indeed, the sex of the typical worker in the new occupation affected the degree to which participants associated certain values with these occupations. For example, if a job was presented as being mainly done by women, participants believed that these were jobs associated with a better work-life-balance. Interestingly, this was only true for adolescents and adults but not for children. The authors also found that both the sex of the workers and the values influenced participants’ interest in the new job.

With regards to women in surgery this is particularly interesting, as it suggests that it is not enough to point out the “feminine” values in the occupation (e.g. helping others), but that it is most of all necessary to change the image of the male surgeon.

Improvements and Barriers for Women in Medicine

While there has been great progress for women in medicine, there are still obstacles and barriers they face and which need to be addressed. In an interesting short article, Hamel and colleagues reflect on these issues for women in academic medicine in the US.

They also talk about potential interventions to close the gender gap and a need to emulate those that have already proven successful such as making promotion criteria more explicit and assessing the appropriateness for promotion for both men and women once a year.

What Is Better for Gender Equality: Hard or Soft Policy Strategies?

There are different approaches when it comes to achieving gender equality and quotas are a hotly debated issue. But what do women directly affected by hard and soft policy strategies think? To answer this question, Casey, Skibnes and Pringle interviewed women in senior management both in Norway and New Zealand – both of which are countries that rank high in gender equality. However, while New Zealand’s strategy to improve gender equality on company boards is a soft one, meaning that they encourage companies to appoint more women to their boards without any legal consequences, Norway introduced a quota that companies are obliged by law to fulfil.

Interestingly, they found that gender equality was perceived as quite similar by female senior managers both in New Zealand and in Norway. However, while women from Norway were generally in favour of the quota, women from New Zealand had strong objections towards it. The authors conclude that it is hard to say which strategy is better – while the quota has definitely succeeded in drastically changing the gender landscape of management in a short period of time in Norway, it may also result in women being pushed into positions they might not feel comfortable taking and negative evaluations of these women. Soft measures, on the other hand, work much slower or not at all, which results (among other things) in the need for women in senior management to adhere to masculine norms.

We would like to add another thought. First, while quotas certainly increase the quantity of women in management, it might not necessarily mean that their positions are equal in quality to those of their male counterparts. Our research suggests that these women might run the risk of finding themselves on a glass cliff. On the other hand, however, the think-manager-think-male stereotype is only going to change if women are equally represented in leadership positions – which might then very well make quotas unnecessary.

Gender Equality at the Harvard Business School

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.