I recall a patient saying with surprise when she met me – “I was expecting a woman with grey hair and a bun”. At least she was expecting a woman. Even after detailed explanations of a surgical procedure I have recommended, many patients have asked, “but who will be performing the surgery?”
What percentage of surgeons are women?
Less than 14% of surgeons in Australia are female.
There are stereotypes assigned to surgical training and female surgeons, both within the community and by the medical profession. Some of the greatest stereotypes are around the ideas of combining a surgical career and motherhood.
I recall early in my training how loudly and proudly my male surgical colleagues would answer when someone inquired about their career choice. Their response met with great encouragement and enthusiasm from friends, relatives, and the community. As a female, I would dread this question and sometimes provide vague answers. My answer would usually be met with surprise, followed by questioning my career choice, like: “Don’t you want to have children?”
Can female surgeons have a family?
There is a belief that surgical training and the subsequent career will prevent women from having children, being good mothers, or being present for their children. Even though numerous women now prove this wrong, each combining their career and motherhood differently, it remains one of the most significant barriers to female doctors choosing surgery. Many believe other medical careers offer a better ‘compromise’ between a career and motherhood. Many female surgeons have combined motherhood and a surgical career with raising large families, even twins, each with their own model for making family life work for them. Many young doctors choose other specialties based on beliefs that they are better than surgery when raising a family. Women face making this career choice often when their family plans are undecided. They see other medical specialties as a way of ‘keeping their options open’.
I have felt my surgical career has had immense benefits as a mother rather than being a compromise.
Kids are expensive, and a higher income as a surgeon has been a definite advantage. It allowed me to afford a nanny when my son was younger and assistance in the home with cleaning and housework leaving me free to spend quality time as a parent.
I grew up with a stay-at-home mum, and running a home takes a lot of work. Parenting and home duties are a full-time job with the advantage of flexible work hours, but still a life of work. I was the first female to train in urology in my state of South Australia. I was advised to work in public hospitals rather than be self-employed in private practice. As a hospital employee, I would have access to a year of maternity leave (unpaid at that time) and part-time options. Yet, a year away from operating for a young surgeon would lead to loss of skills when one should be building their skills and careers like my male colleagues were.
Why is being a surgeon good for family life?
Many self-employed women have discovered the advantages of flexible work hours when combining a career with parenting. In fact, it was self-employed private practice that provided the flexibility I needed as a single mother and the ability to keep working at a critical time in my career and skill acquisition.
My surgical career has led to a whole skill set that has benefited me as a parent. Getting up in the middle of the night, staying in my pajamas, for a screaming baby was a lot easier than getting up, getting dressed and operating on a life-threatening emergency. Working under pressure, dealing with stressful situations, managing teams and being organized, were skills put to good use. I efficiently managed safety in the home and most medical problems. Surgical training hones rapid good judgement, decision making under pressure, and thinking clearly in a crisis. Doesn’t that sound just like parenting?
I think there is a fine line between working under pressure and not having enough to do. I’m not even sure if there is a middle ground. I find working under pressure results in faster acquisition of skills and results. Surgery is a career of life-long learning, and it has pushed me to achieve more than I would have achieved otherwise. This ongoing learning has continued my personal growth.
What is good about being a Surgeon?
A surgical career requires leadership, working and managing teams. It requires me to challenge myself and aim for excellence in everything I do, benefiting every aspect of my life.
Surgery has presented me with the opportunity to meet highly talented, skilled and admirable people impacting my life and my son’s. I have involved my son rather than excluded him from my career. He has benefited from these experiences, including listening to me present at meetings and traveling the world. He has witnessed wonderful gratitude from patients who go out of their way in the street to thank me for how I have helped them, building respect and an understanding of the value of purpose.
Surgery has presented many other opportunities outside traditional clinical roles. Surgery incorporates science and technology due to the complex medical equipment now involved in health care. Running a business makes home budgeting and finances easy. I am grateful for the ongoing brain training as I age and the ability to stay relevant to a teenager. Teaching is a large part of a surgical career, from students to allied health, primary care physicians, specialists, and the community. To be able to teach is a privilege. I am grateful for the experience I have gained in public speaking, presenting to the media, governance roles on boards and committees, community work and volunteering. Other surgeons have taken positions in military service, charity work at home and abroad, and administration. Many have chosen an academic career and medical research. In fact, if my career didn’t make meal planning and home cooking a challenge, I never would have found a solution that led me to write The No Recipe Cookbook.
Early in my career, I experienced immense guilt as a working parent. Time has shown me the advantages my career has brought. I realize that I need a challenging career to be fulfilled, and by being fulfilled, I am a better person and mother.
Choosing a career in surgery has been an opportunity and not a compromise in family life.
There have been reports about the low number of women in surgery in Australia and overseas, highlighting barriers including unacceptable high rates of discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment. Much work is still required to eliminate these inappropriate behaviors and facilitate surgical careers for women. The necessary focus on these issues may not encourage more women to choose surgery. Worse, it may discourage them. The advantages of a career in surgery for women should not be lost in this dialogue.
With diversity and inclusion, everyone is a winner.
One of the most significant benefits of my surgical career has been the opportunity to inspire others.
Female surgeons can continue to challenge what the medical profession and society think about WIS.
I remember my surprise when my son, a preschooler, was attending a surgical conference with me. We had been standing talking to a group of colleagues. As we walked away, he turned to me and asked, “Mum, can men be surgeons too?