Is Surgical Culture Changing?

As a new generation enters surgery and as the number of women in the field is (slowly) increasing, one could hope that this also changes surgical culture. But does it? Judith Belle Brown and colleagues asked themselves exactly this question and conducted an interview study with academic surgeons.

Despite the fact that women still reported more struggles to achieve a good work-life-balance, participants overall noted that surgical culture was indeed changing and that surgeons were no longer expected to devote every waking hour to their jobs. For example, one participant noted: “I think things have changed over the years…I mean surgery in the past has been you just work hard, this is your life, and I think it’s changing a little bit … you are allowed to have a life outside. I think that’s good.”

Moreover, participants stated that this change did not only affect attitudes towards work-life-balance in general, but also attitudes towards childcaring responsibilities. One surgeon said: “I think the younger male colleagues, like my generation, it’s a bit different. We’re seeing more and more male surgeons who are doing more stuff at home … and they’re also having to leave early to pick up their kids because their wife is working too… So it’s changing. It’s not like how it used to be, 20 or 30 years ago.”

So let’s hope that these changes prevail!

Patients May Not Be All That Biased

There is a lot of research on how women in male-dominated areas (e.g. management or politics) are in a somewhat “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. When they present themselves in a warm and feminine way their demeanor is at odds with what the field requires (e.g. they’re not perceived as “real leaders”), but if they present themselves in a masculine, assertive way, they’re not perceived as “real women” and thus disliked. So is that also the case in surgery? A recent study by Marie Dusch and colleagues suggests that this may not necessarily be the case, at least not from the patients’ perspective.

They presented patients in a general hospital with short scenarios describing either a male or a female surgeon who presented themselves in either a feminine or masculine way. Moreover, they were described as either performing breast cancer surgery or lung cancer surgery. Somewhat surprisingly (at least to me) patients did in general not prefer male surgeons over female surgeons or masculine surgeons over feminine ones. Neither did they prefer masculine male surgeons to feminine male surgeons or feminine female surgeons to masculine female surgeons – nor the opposite. In fact, the only significant result they found was that for lung cancer surgery, masculine surgeons were seen as more competent regardless of gender.

While it is important to replicate these results before drawing strong conclusions, this study nevertheless shows that gender stereotypes in surgery may be slowly changing or at least not be as pervasive among patients as we might assume.

How Do Role Models Work?

We’ve highlighted the importance of role models in general and female role models in particular in a number of quite a few of our past posts. Research suggests that role models serve different functions and lead to different outcomes and that gender is not necessarily important for all of them. However, other studies suggest that gender does matter, especialy in domains in women are under-represented, and one reason why that might be the case is that they can change stereotypes.

STEM/M fields in general and surgery in particular are stereotypically associated with men and maleness. The first person one might imagine when thinking about a surgeon is likely to be a man and when asked to describe a surgeon, stereotypically masculine traits such as “cold” might be used. The so called Stereotype Inoculation Model developed by Nilanjala Dasgupta argues that role models might act as a “social vaccine” and inoculate against these stereotypes which prevent women from entering or staying in STEM/M fields.

She proposes that when exposed to other minority members in one’s domain (e.g. other women in surgery), minority members can identify with this person, which then leads to changes in stereotypes and a stronger identification with the field (e.g. with surgery), but also a more positive attitude towards the field, social belonging in the field, perceived threat and one’s perceptions of one’s own abilities.

Thus, while male role models might be just as effective in some regards (e.g. for learning by emulation), visible female role models in surgery are important – not just for those women already on their path to becoming surgeons, but also for those who might not have made their career choices yet.

Marriage, Children and Happiness at Work

Work-life-balance or the anticipated and actual lack thereof is a widely cited cause for the under-representation of women in surgery. This is especially true for women who have a family or are planning to have one as women continue to carry most of the weight when it comes to childcare and household chores.

A study by Sullivan and colleagues investigates this issue in a large sample of surgical residents in the US. They found that generally married residents and those with children have the highest levels of work satisfaction. However, this difference was driven by male participants. As expected, female residents reported high levels of stress regarding home life as well as finances when they were married or had children.

These results once again stress that while creating equal opportunities at work is important, it is not enough to tackle gender inequality. As long as women continue to be responsible for more family related work, it is thus crucial to go beyond that and provide them with opportunities to combine both work and family and still achieve a good work-life-balance.

Social Support in the Medical Profession

Research generally suggests that women receive more social support than men in terms of emotional support. However, there is also evidence that when working in male-dominated fields, women often receive less support in terms of being provided with important information or instrumental help with work tasks. A questionnaire study by Jean Wallace from the University of Calgary investigates these issues in the medical profession.

In line with previous research she finds that women receive (or at least report receiving) more emotional support than their male colleagues. However, her results do not show a gender difference in instrumental support and women actually report receiving more rather than less informational support.

This is encouraging in that it shows that women are actually well integrated in supported in the medical field. On the other hand, the results might also simply be a reflection of the fact that women are more willing to admit receiving help.

Guest Blog: On Role Models (and Surgery as a Boyfriend)

This week, we have once again a guest post. This time, it’s by the awesome KBW, whose blog I can highly recommend. Also, we love guest posts, so if you are interested in writing one, please get in touch!

Much as changed in the near 20 years I have been in and around the medical profession and the progressive feminisation has been wonderful to see and be part of. 

There are many women in surgery, far more now than when I was a medical student and I don’t think there is any real problem with being a woman in surgery.  Some of the women in surgery I encountered early in my career had children and husbands but very few of them were living a life I aspired to. In fact, if anything they put me off and some made me feel even less welcome than the boys. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie Legally Blonde, imagine that but everyone in white coats; times have changed though and we have a gradual spread of women throughout surgery, not all of whom are doing it like the men did. 

I have to acknowledge my parents input, who have an unshakeable belief (which they passed on to me) that I can do anything that I want to do. I was never expected to be slower, weaker or less at anything compared to my brothers and male cousins so not doing general surgery because I was a girl never crossed my mind. 

It was on everyone else’s mind though, when I first started popping up in theatre as a super keen student and junior house officer the animosity from some middle grade doctors and the theatre nurses was incredible, I was never expected to actually, really be a surgeon. Also, some well meaning consultants would gently suggest that maybe I would change my mind about general surgery once I had a husband and children and would I really want to work weekends and night shifts forever? Maybe I would think about doing general practice? 

We now have hordes of female medical students and junior doctors all wanting to do surgery, most of whom want to come and spend some time hanging about with me. I am aware that as the part time mummy surgeon in great shoes I have a responsibility as a role model to them.  When I was a medical student I would have run a mile from the likes of me, but this lot are sent to me by my colleagues to get “the talk”. Three things about this situation bother me, which I no doubt contribute to by seeming approachable. 

Firstly, they seem to think that my personal life and circumstances are something that they can ask all about. How do I organise my childcare? Have I encountered any discrimination problems? How do I manage to get up and dressed and organise things and get there for 0745? How much maternity leave did I take? Do I ever feel guilty about leaving my children and not making it home for bedtime? So far nobody has asked me if I had vaginal deliveries but they have gotten close. 

I don’t mind this when it is a doctor I actually know, someone who is considering embarking on a career as a surgeon but I do mind having to tell every student that comes through the department about how my kids are looked after and whether or not I have a cleaning lady (I do, twice a week in fact, so I can get to the gym on my days off and not spend the time ironing) or if I do the cooking at home. They also want to know what Mr KBW does and how we make our marriage work with our busy schedules. This seems totally irrelevant to being a surgeon and more to do with being a mummy and a wife, it amazes me that these young girls are thinking about their 35 year old selves, I certainly never did. 

The other thing that bothers me is that some are entirely focused on being discriminated against because they are a woman. This has not been my experience at all, there have been very few people (one particularly rude man who is responsible for most of the bile duct injuries within 100 miles of Bighospital) who have openly discriminated against me. 

The only real problem I’ve had because I am a woman is getting elbowed in the chest during laparoscopic surgery all the time and trying to accommodate my enormous 38 weeks pregnant abdomen at the table during laparotomies. Not that I think being female has made it easier, even if my colleagues (and so called friends) said my viva exams were dumbed down because I was the pretty girl. Maybe they were, but I knew the answers to the harder stuff as well so bollocks to them. 

Finally, not one single boy has ever especially come to me or been sent to me to discuss a career as a surgeon, perhaps they get sent to the men. 

So what do I tell these girls in “The Talk”? 

I admit there is the endless everyday sexism that all women encounter but I suspect it is not any different for women in law, the police, schools and offices. They see this on the ward round, in clinic, with my bosses and there is no point ignoring it. For example, I won a prize last month and was quite pleased about it “well done” said my boss “a lot of guys on the panel?” as he gave me a “friendly” tug on my pony tail, ho ho. This is everyday sexism, as are the patients who reply “all the better for seeing you sweetheart” when I do my rounds and enquire how they are; it used to flummox me or make me angry or embarrass me. 

This isn’t discrimination based on gender, but it is sexist behaviour. It could be demeaning if I let it demean me. So I tell the students that they will experience very little discrimination but occasional sexism but it probably isn’t any worse than in any other job. 

I tell them that they have to love surgery because it will take them away from people they love. They have to love it like a crazy obsessed stalker lady. First days at school, Christmas Day, nativity plays, family birthdays, your wedding anniversary…the list of days you won’t and can’t be there is endless. If you don’t love your job you will resent the time you spend there when you feel you should be somewhere else and that makes you a bad doctor. The hours at the computer writing papers, the long trips travelling cheaply to conferences alone, the late nights etc. 

Surgery is like a boyfriend who constantly makes you prove how much you love him and plays games with your feelings. The semi mandatory research PhD and MD degrees are like getting a tattoo of his name and just when you think he loves you, and you and he are getting on so well he will punch you in the face with a complication that makes you buckle at the knees. 

I also tell them to speak to people about it and urge them to get feedback on their hands and technical skills. Not everyone can do surgery and the sooner you realise that you have hands suited for a career as an occupational health physician the better. I also try and discourage them from being rigidly attached to a specialty very early. Better to want to be a surgeon and consider all the surgical specialties early on than having your heart set on being a head and neck cancer surgeon from the age of 19. 

Again, to use the boyfriend analogy, not many people who are determined to find and marry a blonde 6 foot welsh rugby player, 2 years older than them, with no baggage, minimal chest hair, nice feet and works as a vet in the country end up doing so (trust me on this one, I know the woman who wanted this and she is 38, lonely and miserable). So keep your options open and consider all types of surgery. 

It also helps to have role models and mentors to guide and influence you. They don’t need to be told that they are your role model, there is no need to formalise the process. Mine have been almost entirely male, there have been about four that have massively influenced my professional and personal life for either a brief period (an amazing plastic surgeon who wrote plays and was an amateur actor) or the few that have been around for most of my adult life (the great leaders). 

What most of mine have in common is a rich and varied life out with medicine; all are excellent surgeons and lead their teams well, they are well liked and respected and are exceptionally nice and clever people. These characteristics are not gender specific, as a group they probably are slightly more effusive than other male surgeons but they are all white, British, quintessential Royal College material men. There are of course a few women that have influenced me, one in particular that is about 5 years ahead of me has taught me a lot more than just how to operate and it has been interesting to watch her go from stage to stage and see the few mistakes she has made and the many things she has done right and continues to refine.

Find people you want to be like and ask them how they got there. That might be the workaholic, hugely productive university professor who spends every second at work and publishes endlessly. It might be the guy in the super flash suit whose patients love him and he works tirelessly for them. It might be the forgetful, kind hearted amazing surgeon who can teach almost anyone to do anything. 

Above all else, realise that this is a journey where there is no final destination. You will always be learning, always trying to get better, always be teaching others and trying to get better at teaching others. 

There is nothing I would rather do than my job, it is the greatest privilege and the most amazing challenge and it is super fun and makes me happy. Not many people can say that about their work, so find a role model that smiles on the way into the hospital and looks happy in theatre because that’s how you should want to feel too. 

 

20140521-211315.jpg One for the urology trainees….

The Impact of Work Hour Restrictions in Surgery

Surgery is a time demanding job and that is indeed one of the reasons cited by female and male medical students alike of why they are not interested in going into surgery. While many people argue that long work hours are necessary to avoid frequent handoffs of care and loss of information, others point out that long work hours are detrimental for both physical and mental health and can lead to additional errors.

A study speaking to this issue comes from the US, where Matthew Hutter and colleagues investigated the effects of mandated restrictions in the work hours of surgical residents. Notably, we are not talking about restrictions that would make their work hours “normal” by any regular-work-person standards. Their work was restricted to 80 hours a week. But even so, they found effects after the changes were implemented including decreased burnout and increased quality of life. However, participants also voiced concerns about reduced quality of care.

These issues are of course also important for part-time work, which seems to be an option that many women in surgery would like to opt for. So how can the same benefits be achieved while maintaining a high quality of care for patients?

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.

Obstacles for Women in Pediatric Surgery

Just as any are within surgery, pediatric surgery struggles to recruit women. But what might be some of the barriers women in this field face and how do they influence job satisfaction? In order to investigate this issue, Donna Caniano and colleagues sent out a questionnaire to 95 female pediatric surgeons in the US.

They found that, in line with what female medical students might fear, women in pediatric surgery did express a desire to spend more time with their families and more room for personal interests in their lives. This is obviously an important issue which needs to be addressed. Offering part-time work may be an option and about half of participants showed interest in reduced hours. Moreover, about a third of female pediatric surgeons expressed interest in fixed-time schedules. However, women working in academic surgery were concerned that this would interfere with their career.

On a more positive note, regardless of these issues most women reported high career satisfaction, perceived their career to be rewarding and would make the same career choice again. Nevertheless, the issues raised above need to be addressed in pediatric surgery, but also in surgery in general.

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.