Many pathways, similar goals?

Yesterday I received the monthly newsletter from our Women in Medicine and Science (WiMS) Office.  It has 10 bullet items in it, 5 of which relate to the Mom community, parental leave, child care, etc. This was notable to me primarily because I can’t say that I have a positive history with our WiMS group.  About 3 years ago our Dean hosted a series of dinners for women faculty with the leadership from WiMS and Academic Affairs serving as the co-hosts; I found myself at a table that spent the entire evening discussing marriage and children.  I have nothing against people being married and having children (more power to you, particularly in dual career families!).  What I do have an issue with is having a conversation in a place with people who are your professional peers that entirely excludes others at the table; there was one other unmarried woman without children at our table, and unfortunately she and I were seated directly across from one another, preventing us from being able to start our own conversation.  After the dinner I told my friend who is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs what happened, and also told her the probability of me attending another WiMS event is near zero.  Yesterday’s newsletter heavy focus on issues relevant to that same subgroup who excluded me reinforces my belief that at our institution we probably should rename the WiMS office for what it really is- a Families in Medicine Office.

I want to be clear that I acknowledge the tension present for those who have the competing pressures of a young family- or aging parents- and a vibrant academic career.  I hope that my friends who are dual career with children and making their way in academic medicine understand how much I respect them; it’s all I can do to keep my own house running and I have a dog and two cats (and a wonderful mother who lives 1.5 miles away from me).  However, based upon conversations with male colleagues of my own generation, this family-work tension (or work-life integration as I also refer to it) is no longer the exclusive domain of women.  And based upon my own research about barriers to careers in academic surgery, while women surgeons do perceive that tension as a barrier, it was one of MANY barriers- and it wasn’t the first thing that came up in most of my interviews.  Resources, mentorship, having your work valued- all of these things were raised as much or more in terms of things that are critical to success in academic surgery.  More to come on all of that, I promise, as the stories crystallize into their themes.

I’m always happy to hear my friends’ tales of trying to juggle two careers, soccer practice, dance lessons, and getting dinner on the table.  I’m also happy to hear these friends’ tales of their latest research idea or commiserate over a terrible clinical story.  I need both of those things as a peer and a colleague- I need to know that they are multidimensional, that they are passionate about all of the things in their lives.  I want them to love their kids and spouses.  I want them to love their profession.  And I want them to strive for better in both of those spaces.

I still believe there is a need in medicine, and surgery in particular, for us to have organizations responsible for helping women to break down the structural barriers to our success in academia and in leadership roles. I do believe some of those barriers are still real and relevant.  I also believe that we must be thoughtful and non-exclusionary in our approach to these things because we are each traveling our own challenging path.  And more importantly, we need to include those who are different, be it in gender or family model, who are willing to embrace the concerns and to help us find ways to make all of these challenges just a bit easier.  Our loved ones and our profession- both at the individual and the collective level- deserve that.


5 thoughts on “Many pathways, similar goals?

  1. Amen Sister! It is so hard to convince men and women that there is more to the professional advancement of women in their careers than just issues related to gestating and child-rearing. Supremely frustrating to have every conversation, event, etc. distilled down to that issue. Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids but there is so much more to me that my off-spring. Female students considering careers in surgery get sent to me because I happened to have two children in residency and not because I am an accomplished clinician and researcher. In my burnout talk I specifically say “your children are not your hobby. they are a life stress, just as your career is a source of life stress…find a hobby that is totally about you.” Anyways, thanks for writing this.

    1. You were one of the people I was thinking of when I wrote this- you love the hubs, you love the kids, and you love your career. And you are an incredibly talented surgeon and academic. I’m lucky you’re my friend, and we must run next time we’re in the same place at the same time.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly. I also get asked to speak or mentor simply because I have children, as if work-life balance with a family is the only thing I’m capable of talking about. It trivializes me as a clinician and a researcher and makes me feel like the only thing I bring to the table is “token” diversity, rather than actual academic content.
    Work-life is do much more than that and when we/men turn “women in medicine” events into “families in medicine” events, the effectively pigeonhole women with families as being solely identified by their children, marginalize women without children, and drive a wedge between the two. We should be inclusive in these events and come together for solutions to the problems that face all women, rather than being divisive. When I’m on a panel or at an event and children/family comes up, I try to steer the conversation elsewhere and invite trainees to speak with me privately if they want mentoring in that arena.
    We should recognize that the family juggling game is only a small piece of it, and the solutions for managing children are widely variable based on individual situation. I’d argue we should abandon this conversation completely at these type of events (or hold co-Ed “family solutions” events seperately) and focus on the real issues that face women: mentorship, sponsorship, leadership, and professional development.

    1. Stephanie, it’s comments like this that crystallize for me your growing role as an advocate for women and diversity in surgery. You bring a thoughtful and important voice to the table, and I thank you for sharing it.

  3. You have made a number of excellent points here. Yes, it seems that the world at times is divided into women doctors who have children and those who do not and hence there is this perception that neither the two should meet! The laudable goal is to promote diversity and accept that a good modern workplace will be made up of a number of individuals who may have differing social circumstances.