Sexism and Surgery: Starting off with a bang

Did you happen to see this great piece from Emily Graslie a couple of weeks ago?

I loved this video for a couple of reasons.  One is obvious if you are familiar with her work- Emily’s video series from The Brain Scoop is a terrific, user-friendly approach to science.  The other was that I honestly empathized with the comments that Emily included in her video, as I suspect many of us do, and I loved her approach to dealing with sexism and science.  She’s no-nonsense about it and addresses the issue head on.

I thought back to my first encounter with sexism in medicine, going back to high school.  Our family’s physician, upon being told that I was leaving for college at the end of my junior year under an early admission program with intent of going to medical school, simply commented, “Well, I guess it’s okay for women to be physicians these days.”  No, he wasn’t joking.  No, he never treated me again (nor my mother).  I’ll admit- this was almost 30 years ago, and with the entry of more women into medical school many things have changed.  Or have they?

Plenty of research shows that female medical students often experience gender discrimination, and that this occurs most commonly on their surgical clerkships.  Women medical students are more likely to experience gender discrimination during their surgical clerkship than are their male counterparts and are more likely to perceive sex discrimination, typically from male attendings and male residents.  My own recent work has shown that female surgeons and residents are more concerned about the presence of sex discrimination in the workplace than are their male colleagues, and that they perceive this discrimination as a barrier to advancement in academic surgery.  Clearly this problem isn’t just one of the 1980s; it persists in modern-day medicine.

Stories of incidents can be gathered easily enough from many sources; in one night on Twitter I was able to acquire stories ranging from colleagues or patients refusing to address a woman physician as “Doctor” to women being told they are “too nice” to be a surgeon, or being told that they are allowed to do more in the OR because of their looks.  While the overt sexism remains, many institutions are starting to consider the role of “implicit bias,” those subtle behaviors and actions that manage to undermine the leadership and credibility of any minority group.  Yes, women surgeons are still a minority group.

So back to where we started, with Emily Graslie’s video.  We have a problem still, and what we need is a solution.  We can start by speaking up when we hear sexist comments- particularly those of us who are a little more senior and are therefore more empowered because of where we are in our careers than our younger colleagues.  We need the buy-in of our “enlightened male” colleagues to support the career development of talented women.  We can also work within our institutions to increase awareness of implicit bias in hopes that this will have a durable impact.  And, as Emily Graslie stated, “We need to make sure we’re making it possible for people of all genders to feel acknowledged for their contributions and not feel held back by something as arbitrary as their genetics or appearance.”  That’s simply wise advice for life.

3 thoughts on “Sexism and Surgery: Starting off with a bang

  1. Amalia, thanks for shining some light on this subject. The implicit bias against women and minorities is undeniable. All surgical chairs should have their faculty take the Implicit Association Test, if they care about learning the truth. The ultimate solution, I hope, is to achieve gender parity in every surgical specialty, including parity in surgical leadership.

    Great blog already!

    1. Ben, I was honestly hoping that you would bring in the minority angle, too, because it remains a very real issue. I’m hoping that we can solve both together, but I don’t deny that it will likely be our career’s great work for many of us.

  2. Thank you for tackling a tough subject. I agree it is essential to have awareness and leadership from the top. Otherwise those of us at the bottom have no one to turn to when these subtle (and not-so-subtle) remarks and differential treatment occurs. In addition, the bias can be based on “irreversible factors” like our race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. and can break someone’s morale – as if there were not enough other factors at play in surgery/medicine!