The Tough-Minded Female Surgeon? Not Necessarily.

Similar to other areas in the workplace where women are under-represented, it is often claimed that either women don’t have what it takes to succeed or that those women who do have what it takes aren’t “proper” women (whatever that is supposed to mean). Thus, women in surgery may find themselves in a double bind situation in which they are either too feminine for a surgeon or too masculine for a woman.

But what are women interested in surgery actually like. In what ways (if in any) do they differ from women in medicine not interested in surgery and from men interested in surgery? A study by Coulston, Vollmer-Conner and Malhi gives us some answers to that. They surveyed Australian medical students, asking them about their personalities, important goals in their careers and interest in a number of medical fields, including surgery. Their findings indicate that female medical students interested in a career in surgery are not all that different from other female medical students, although they do place significantly more importance on prestige. Compared to male medical students interested in surgery, on the other hand, they care less about prestige and financial reward and more about the ability to help people – a pattern that is observed as a general difference between male and female doctors. With regards to personality factors, the study showed that women interested in surgery did not show the traits stereotypically associated with surgery (e.g. tough-mindedness).

So in the end, although this study cannot tell us anything about what it takes to succeed in surgery, it certainly suggests that the field initially attracts all kinds of women (not just those who fit the stereotype of a surgeon). It leaves the question open whether this changes over time as medical students gain more experience with surgery and surgeons.