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.

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How Do Newly Qualified Graduates Perceive Surgery?

Misogyny, a bad work-life balance, the “old boys’ club” – there is a long list of reasons cited for the lack of women in surgery. However, a recent study conducted in the UK by Edward Fitzgerald from the University of Nottingham and his colleagues (which, by the way, also mentions WinS!) suggests that the main reason lies somewhere else: Women just seem to be uninterested in surgery itself.

In their study they gave out surveys to female and male newly qualified graduates from the University of Nottingham Medical School asking about interest in a career in surgery as well as reasons for this. Not surprisingly, men generally reported more interest in surgery than women (42% vs. 25%). The number one reason for this was a lack of interest in surgery itself. This was, however, followed by negative attitudes towards women in the field.  The latter reason was backed up by the fact that 59% of male and 68% of female participants believed that surgery was not a career that was welcoming to women. When asked the open question why this was the case, the fact that surgery was male-dominated was the number one reason cited, followed by the difficulty of maintaining a family life and limited flexible training opportunities.

This study shows that even among newly qualified female graduates, the perception of surgery remains stubbornly stereotypical masculine and unattractive for women. It is therefore not just a matter of time until more and more women will enter surgery – it remains important to show women in medical schools that surgery is not just for men and that it is an exciting and welcoming place to work.