by: Kathryn Hughes, MD, FACS
Mentorship in medicine and surgery was not always formally acknowledged and promoted. Today not only is it acknowledged and promoted, but also the importance of mentorship for professional development through the arc of a career is stressed. However, for many women, the one-to-one relationship of the classic mentor-protégé remains elusive, complicated by gender and generational differences. This has been especially true for the groundbreaking women before me, and for some remains true even today. In a very real and tangible way, the Association of Women Surgeons has been a mentor to me, and perhaps to other women surgeons as well. The mission of the Association of Women Surgeons is “to inspire, encourage and enable women surgeons to realize their professional and personal goals.” This sounds a lot like the description of a mentor. (The AWS even publishes a book entitled ThePocket Mentor).
So that begs the question, can an organization itself be a mentor? I would assert that it can be.
Mentorship and the mentoring relationship overlap and encompass many other roles. One can have more than one mentor, each for different activities or components of work and career, or just one mentor to help with the big picture. Role model, professor or teacher, advocate, coach all come to mind, and mentors may be any or all of these to some degree. A mentor provides encouragement and support, advocacy and sponsorship; they guide and educate. The relationship between a mentor and protégée is notable for longevity over time.
These sorts of professional relationships formed in the past as they do now, but they were spontaneous and organic, as junior- and senior-level individuals naturally gravitated together, bonding over shared interests or goals. However, mentorship was not well defined or delineated, not identified beyond one of its component functions of advisor, teacher, proctor or coach. The mentoring relationship retains that spontaneous and organic nature; it can’t be forced or assigned. Unlike then, however, there is encouragement to go and look for mentors. You will never find these relationships if you don’t look.
I certainly had role models and champions along the way as I moved through the stages of my education. Teachers and professors and coaches, residents and attendings who took an interest in, supported and encouraged me. To them I am thankful and grateful. But there is an important part of the definition of mentorship, the concept of developing and nurturing the relationship and the guidance over time that differs from these relationships. Mentorship as I understand it is different, and it is more.
Women in surgery remain a minority, more striking as one advances through the ranks, just as striking in community practice as in academia. Whether academic rank or leadership in societies and organizations, the farther up the ladder you go, the fewer women you see. This is mirrored in community and in private practice, where there may be no women at all, or maybe just one. I am hard-pressed to think of many practices outside of breast surgery with more than one woman. A surgical practice may strive to have a woman, but rarely more than one. In fact, often if a community has more than one woman surgeon on staff, these women will usually be found in different specialties.
This is very isolating. Although we have much in common with our female colleagues in other specialties and other professions, there is much about surgery that remains unique and uniquely challenging. We seek mentors to help us navigate the day-to-day challenges as well as to help guide the trajectory our career. Many of us have had meaningful guidance and mentorship from men, but since it’s a given that our male colleagues can’t truly understand the challenges unique to being both women and surgeons, their help can only go so far.
This is the void that the Association of Women Surgeons fills. Into this place the organization steps in, as a surrogate for an individual mentor.
As a group, the AWS makes good on the promise of its mission statement, taking the form of conferences, lectures, networking, committee work, and publications. Since the AWS first came together, the organization has been there for all women in surgery, at all levels. Along with other similar groups, the AWS has deconstructed the dynamics of the “good old boys network,” identifying and promoting both theory and practice of networking. Indeed, I believe by shining the light on mentorship, we now pay attention to it. Mentorship is deconstructed, defined, and promoted. Our students and trainees seek mentors. I don’t think this is a coincidence that the attention to mentors and mentorship has paralleled the activity and growth of women (and their organizations) in medicine and surgery. This benefits not just the young women in medical school and residency, but all physicians in all levels and stages of career, male and female.
Today there are opportunities for women in surgery to find each other and connect, especially with the expansion of social media. Organizations like the AWS catalyze this. The challenges going forward are to harness the power of technology and social media to continue to connect, to network, to support, and to form mentoring relationships. To increase involvement and engagement in the core constituency of general surgery (as the meeting piggybacks on the American College of Surgeons annual Clinical Congress), and meaningfully include women in all of the surgical specialties, including GYN surgery, where a parallel organization such as ours does not exist.
Our numbers will continue to grow, so will our influence. The fellowship and support of the Association of Women surgeons is the surrogate mentor for all of us as we continue to chip away at the glass ceiling, and provides the structure for those who do break through to send a ladder back down to offer other colleagues a rung to stand on and a way up.
Dr. Kathryn A. (Kathy) Hughes, FACS is a General Surgeon, practicing breast and general surgery. She has spent the majority of her career in private practice in community hospitals, where she has had leadership roles as Chief of Surgery and most recently Vice-President of the Medical Staff. In addition to the ACS and AWS, she is a member of the American Society of Breast Surgeons, the AMA, and the Massachusetts Medical Society, where she represents the North Essex District in the House of Delegates, and serves on the Committee on Women in Medicine.
She currently resides and practices in Massachusetts. She has ventured out into social media and is on Twitter as @DrKathyHughes, you can find her on Facebook as DrKathy Hughes and on her page Behind the Mask. She blogs from Behind the Mask on WordPress.