More on Overcoming Barriers in Surgery

As mentioned in a number of our recent posts, women still confront more hurdles in their surgical careers than their male counterparts. Here is some advice from some women in surgery on how to deal with these hurdles:

“You got to believe in yourself. And I think that is something that women in surgery are generally really bad at. And I think we suffer more from performance anxiety than many of our male counterparts do. I look at most of the women I know in surgery and most of them are at or above the level of their male counterparts. I think women have to be that little bit better to get on throughout their training. But I think [they] just [need] to believe that they can do it.”

“Both between girls and boys – you need to have buddies throughout training and I guess as a twin I had a buddy right from day one revising through A-levels and things, and through medical school revising with people. And I guess I’ve always found someone to always talk to which has suited me well, whether it is a boy to talk to or a girl to talk to. And maybe that’s sort of the quality of a female if you like to be able to talk through a problem and happier talking through something to get through a solution. But that sort of worked for me so far.”

“Actually, the bad times that you have through training are really kind of where some of the more inspirational people that I’ve met have come into my life and people that have seen that perhaps you’ve had a hard time. I’ve been quite humbled by some of the people who have actually come along and pick you up and go ‘No, you are good enough to do this. We really want you to do this. We think that you’re good enough and we want you as a colleague.’ That can be pretty amazing.”


Overcoming Barriers, Hurdles and Stumbling Blocks

Our last few posts have highlighted some of the barriers women in the workplace in general or in surgery in particular face. However, these barriers are by no means insurmountable. Here is the take of some women in surgery on overcoming these barriers:

“I know when I first started I was like ‘Oh my gosh, there are so many hurdles’, but they’re fun hurdles and they’re hurdles that you do with other people. So I’d say get some good work experience … speak to people who are doing that job day to day, find out what it entails. There have been loads of work experience people coming around recently and you just talk to them and say ‘this is what we do, are you interested in that? Okay, come and watch me do this’. And it gives them a bit of insight into what they are in for and hopefully it inspires a few people that it is not too difficult, that it is achievable.”

“I think WinS is absolutely fundamental to women centred issues around pursuing a surgical career. I’ve been at lots of conferences where we talked about maternity leave, breastfeeding, how do you operate when you’re pregnant… and answered a lot of questions and anxieties that women surgeons have that they just can’t ask in the workplace because there aren’t other women to ask. And also just the practicalities of how you manage pregnancy and how you manage childcare afterwards – there are hundreds of examples in the WinS organisation. They just need to come to our meetings or just tap into it and there is a wealth of information there. And then they go away having come with what seemed to be an insurmountable problem going ‘well, what was all that about? All these ladies made it seem really easy and if they can do it, there is no reason why I can’t do it.’.”

“Babies, pregnancy – how do you operate when you are quite far away from the table? But actually I noticed that some of my male colleagues were the same size already and they didn’t have a baby in them. So I thought ‘well, if they can do it, I can manage it as well’. I remember having a conversation with a male consultant about putting socks on at 35 weeks pregnant. I was having difficulties putting my socks on and he was like ‘yes, I have difficulties with that as well’ and it was a hilarious moment.“

“I think if you feel that things are getting compromised – either on your family side or on your job side then you have to reconsider. Work less and spend more time at home. Or the other way around – if you feel that you are missing out on things and progressions in your career then maybe you should organise more backup from home. In the end, everyone needs to be happy and stay happy – including yourself.”

“It’s a marathon rather than a sprint. It’s not glamorous on a day to day basis at all as it is portrayed on the TV. But it is doable and workable and if you are prepared to put in the hard work it is a very rewarding career to have.”

Women Have What It Takes

As Surgery is still a largely male-dominated field, it might seem as if women do not ‘have what it takes’ to make it in this field. But the truth is that surgery is a very diverse field in which all kinds of skills and traits are needed – none of which are determined by the shape of one’s genitalia. So what are the characteristics required for working in Surgery? Here is what men and women working in this field think.

“There needs to be a cross-section of personality types because there are different sorts of operating and different sorts of operating suit different sorts of people. I was never going to be an orthopaedic surgeon. It was never the kind of operating that I enjoyed. It has less patient contact, I think. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but they have less patient contact, I think, and that suits them as personalities. It does need different horses for the different courses in Surgery.”

“You’ve got to have the mind to do it. You have to be able to concentrate for long periods of time. You’ve got to be organized and meticulous. You have to have a love for detail. You’ve got to be meticulous about every little thing because it all counts. Being female helps. I don’t want to be stereotypical, but you’ve got the empathic way and you relate to patients, you can ease them. Because when you’re doing surgery day-to-day you forget what a big deal it is for patients. You see patients going in and coming out of the theatre all the time but for them it’s the first time they stepped into a hospital and they are going to hear all these scare stories and it’s about them having faith in you as a caring physician. I think surgery is not about just getting and done ‘let’s whip it out, stitch them and close them up’. It’s the whole holistic approach. And I think being female has helped getting that holistic side into surgery.”

“On the technical side you have to be a good technician. You have to be technically very good and that’s independent [of gender]. Maybe because women have smaller hands and are more precise sometimes, they are better at doing fine surgery. But it depends very much on the character. On the personal side, I think most women have a lot of empathy. I’m not saying that most men don’t have a lot of empathy, but it’s probably a more female characteristic and it helps you do the job.”

“It’s not very feminine to play with hammers and drills and things and people suggest you need muscle power but that’s why there are machines. You can find a way to manipulate bones. The main thing is to know how to do it, not to have the muscle power.”

“We (women) have in spades what you need to do the job. We can team work, we can communicate, we have great manual dexterity. But what we bring to the table mostly is a lack of ego. It’s a view towards collaboration, it’s a view towards the patient: This is a patient, this is not about me; this is not about my private practice; this is not about me being the most successful or most powerful person in the world. And I think women are much more able to focus on that aspect of care – at least more readily. The blokes do it, but it takes them a little bit more of a journey to get there.”