The need for enlightened men

Last week I was involved in an email exchange with two colleagues (we’re working on a subversive project together…more on that eventually) when one of them pointed out that a 2017 meeting of a major surgical organization has exactly zero women scheduled as a keynote speaker.  Yes, you read that right.  Zero.

This isn’t a a specialty organization I’m a member of because it doesn’t meet my clinical or professional development needs, but both of these colleagues are members. And while I know some of that organization’s higher echelon leadership fairly well from other organizations, I’m not really in a great position to point the issue out to them since I’m not a member.

Fortunately, our third colleague involved in the Subversion Project is a man. Most importantly, he’s a man who does not hesitate to speak up about failure of inclusion, and he also happens to be a member (and leader) of the organization in question. He’s asking lots of questions about diversity and inclusion, and I made it a point to thank him for doing that tonight.

This series of events was buttressed by an HBR piece last week on men who mentor women. While this particular instance is less about mentoring and more about “doing the right thing,” it’s behavior that tells me that this individual is also likely a remarkable mentor and sponsor to women surgeons. And he’s engaging in the first behavior identified in the HBR article, using his authority to change workplace culture.  While he’s not in one of the BIG leadership changes to force change about inclusivity in the organization in question, he is using his voice to ask important questions and make sure that the issue isn’t ignored. He’s being an ally, and that’s something that none of us can underestimate the value of, even as we’re about to enter 2017.

Patricia Numann has long used the phrase “enlightened man” to describe the allies who have helped to advance women in the surgical profession. In interviews I did in 2014-2015 about barriers to academic careers, the preponderance of the mid-career and senior women surgeons I interviewed described at least one male mentor who was instrumental in their career development. Until we achieve a critical mass of women in academic surgery, meaning we’re 1/3 or more of those at the table, this isn’t going to change much in the absence of spectacular help.

You know, the kind of help that raises its hand and says, “Hey, we can do better to represent our membership in general,” then gets to work making sure that actually happens.

(Additional reference for men who want to learn how to be better allies for women in male-dominated fields is the man-focused chapter in Feminist Fight Club.  When I read it, I thought immediately of several men I know who could have written it and definitely live it.  Thank you if you’re among them.)


An accidental feminist

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.


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.