I have to start with a brief explanation of the framework I approach the world from. I’m an only child. I was raised by parents who never divided my world into girl things and not-girl things. I loved dresses, hated ballet, loved my motorcycle (yes, I had one), hated being told I couldn’t do anything. I took piano lessons for 10 years and was in choir from 1st grade on. I wore pink because I liked it, and I wore blue because I liked it too. I did have a tutu and a tiara because in my mind those were power objects (fairy princess, FTW!). My career aspirations were to be a cowgirl princess surgeon President- at least I got three of the four right (with two only being part-time gigs, of course)!
The first time I encountered actual gender bias was at age 16. I was in our family doctor’s office getting my requisite pre-College paperwork filled out, and when he asked I responded that I was headed to A&M with plans to go on to medical school. His response? “Well, I guess it’s okay for girls to be doctors these days.”
I walked out of his office, never to return. Note: this was 1984. It simply had never occurred to me that people might question my ambitions because of my gender. Never.
The next episode of gender bias was during my career “detour” between college and medical school. What I didn’t realize when I started graduate studies in Political Science, and in International Relations in particular, was how much of a male-dominated world that was. Women were definitely exceptional, though it truly wasn’t an issue in my day-to-day existence with my advisor and the rest of our group who worked for him. Where it became an issue was when one of my classmates commented, “Well, you get all of the good assignments because you’re a girl.”
My response? “No, I get all of the good assignments because I’m good at what I do.” Please note that this classmate no longer was considered a friend after this episode and that I kept getting the good assignments until I left grad school.
And then I landed in academic surgery. I’m one of the 16% (women who are associate professors in surgery) and aspiring to move in the near future to the 9% (women who are professors in surgery). I finished my surgical residency with a class that was 60% women and in which everyone else took parental leave. I want to clearly state that my career has been fostered by many of those individuals whom Pat Numann calls “enlightened men,” starting with my mentor in medical school and continuing into my decision to become a burn surgeon and my subsequent clinical career in burn surgery. When I started as burn faculty in 2005, we had fewer than 10 women practicing in burns in the US. Here’s the thing, though- when I decided to go into surgery, and when I decided to go into burns, I knew there weren’t many “like” me, but I also didn’t have anyone look at me and tell me it wasn’t a career for a woman. I was fortunate to have been promoted and mentored and sponsored by people who simply wanted the best person for the job, and who (fortunately) thought I was that person.
My experiences have definitely colored who I am and how I perceive gender relations in our profession today. I believe that times are changing and that those who don’t believe that women can do the job, or who believe that women get special treatment, are fading quickly from our profession. I’m not delusional enough to say that it’s all sunshine, rainbows, and bunnies because I know the reality is different. It’s not perfect everywhere…yet.
What do I want for all of us at this point? A level playing field, and one in which we don’t have to think about a woman surgeon or a surgeon’s race. I want us all to be surgeons, and to be great ones who reflect who our patients are.