More on Role Models in Surgery

As discussed in a previous post, role models for women need not necessarily be female to be inspirational to women. Here are some interesting quotes from men and women in surgery talking about female and male role models and who inspired them along their career path:

“Role models are really important but when I was trained there weren’t many women role models. The few women that had made it into surgery were really quite daunting characters and they weren’t necessarily inspirational. They were very committed to their jobs and they weren’t doing something I necessarily wanted to do, whereas there were an awful lot of men in surgery who were inspirational. They were very well balanced, they had a lot of interests, they were very intelligent, sensitive men – and they were role models at that time. And they were also the ones who were saying ‘look, there is no reason why you can’t do this’.”

“I think what you need is someone senior who takes you under their wings from a young age and says ‘we think that you can do this, we think you have the potential, we are interested in you as a neurosurgeon’. I had that in neurosurgery, so when I left my neurosurgical post to go to take up an ENT post they said ‘I don’t think you’re doing the right thing’ and they were right. And of course that is a huge influence. In fact, I think they had more influence than my parents did in terms of my future ultimate role. I didn’t have the opportunity to have female role models at this stage. There wasn’t another female neurosurgeon who I could ask about the practicality of running a life, having babies and being a neurosurgeon. But I had enough support from the male counterparts that I came across to know that wasn’t an insurmountable problem.”

“I have many female consultants in my department in Spain. I’m thinking of two of them because I really enjoy working with them. One of them is a breast surgeon and mother to two children and I’ve been operating with her during a long microsurgery with her pregnancy belly and it was really fun. She is really committed to her job and to her family. The other one is a lower limb surgeon and she performs the best surgeries I’ve seen. It’s a real pleasure to work with her.”

“I didn’t have any medics in my family to get the stories so surgery is something you see on TV and they’re always depicting men in surgery and then the women who are struggling to be at the same level as them. And then as a student I’d come to the hospital and I’d have my placements and every time in general surgery I’d see these old school surgeons and the top ones were always male. I hardly saw any females. My female role models came from elsewhere in medicine. Eventually I started reading about female surgeons out there. When I went to the Royal College of Surgeons to take my exams, there is this amazing mural on the wall in one of the rooms and it has all the female surgeons in the whole country who are eminent. And as cheesy as it sounds – I’d often look up to that mural in times when I just couldn’t revise anymore for my exams and I’d think ’one day I want my name to be up there’.”


Female Role Models in Surgery

When talking about areas in which women remain under-represented such as surgery the lack of female role models is a frequently mentioned key problem. More often than not the solution then seems to be to just present girls and women with a woman in a stereotypical male occupation. But is it really that simple? An interesting study by Laurie Rudman and Julie Phelan suggests that it is not.

The authors presented biographies of men and women in either stereotypical or counter-stereotypical professions to female students. So while one group read about a female nurse and a male surgeon, the other group read about a male nurse and a female surgeon. A control group read about animals. Contrary to what might have been expected, the women who had read about stereotypical men and women as well as those who had read about counter-stereotypical men and women both showed less interest in “masculine” professions compared to the control group. It is easy to see why this happened in the group that read about stereotypical men and women: Their gender stereotypes were activated and reinforced. But what about the other group? After all the students in the counter-stereotypical group had just read about women who could succeed in surgery! The authors’ explain this finding by something called upward comparison threat. This effect refers to the fact that when comparing oneself to someone more successful, rather than feeling inspired, one often feels threatened as the success seems unattainable. In other words, rather than thinking “She can do it, so I can probably do it as well”, female students may have thought something along the lines of “Wow, she is so successful. I don’t think I could ever be like her”. This in turn lead to them perceiving themselves as even less fit for atypical professions then before exposure to these “role models”.

So does this mean that female role models are useless at best or even detrimental? By no means. It simply shows that the way in which role models can benefit women in surgery and other stereotypical masculine professions is not as simple and straightforward as one might think. It is not enough to just throw a successful female surgeon out there and hope for the best. It is important that other women can relate to her, feel that her success is attainable and thus get inspired to follow her footsteps.