Being a Woman in AWS

24 Sep 2020

By Cheryl Zogg

Since joining AWS in my first year of medical school, running my school’s local chapter as an M2, and spending the last three years as a member of the AWS National Medical Student Committee (first as Research Coordinator and currently Chair… doing an MD-PhD takes a few years), AWS has become an important part of how I define ‘my tribe.’ It is a much loved aspect of how I interact with the broader surgical community and, in general, an amazing organization of women many of whom I have the pleasure of calling my mentors and friends. Since AWS’s creation in 1981 (39 years next month!), it has continued to touch the lives of female surgeons in all stages of their careers.

Yet, in AWS’s existence, there comes a divide that we seldom like to address… a lingering concern too often expressed by my non-AWS female peers that in joining an organization like AWS, they risk exposing themselves. They risk drawing attention to the fact that they are female surgeons when what they are looking for is to be seen as good surgeons regardless of gender by their predominantly male peers. 

I have lost track of how many times I have been sitting alongside a female medical student heading into a surgical residency match, a female resident learning the ropes of a competitive integrated field, or a successful female mentor who has achieved the rare honor of becoming a chief or a chair only to have them look at me and say, “It is great, the work that you do with AWS. I never felt that I could become a part of that organization myself.” It breaks my heart when I hear members of my own AWS National Medical Student Committee talking about how to prep for inevitable questions about their participation in AWS as they head into residency interviews next month knowing that they will be called out for the organization potentially being seen as sexist. We deal with the same issue when working with interested medical schools trying to establish new AWS chapters and justify to their administrations why a women in surgery group needs to exist. It’s frustrating and exhausting and an issue in no way unique to the experience of gender in medicine. 

By existing, AWS challenges norms. In 39 years, we have come a long way from a sign on a table at a breakfast at a meeting of the American College of Surgeons to a thriving organization with a real impact on the lives of female surgeons around the globe. In many ways, the challenges that we are seeing are a testament to that success—a recognition that the conversation has moved forward enough that deeper issues are coming to light. It is also a harrowing reminder of how far we still have to go and, at present, how many female surgeons AWS fails to reach.

In a year dedicated to promoting diversity and inclusion through our national conference; introduction of a new trainee award in conjunction with SBAS, LSS, SAAS, and AAS; and recent kick-off of celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month in a coordinated effort as an organization for the first time, I sincerely hope that we can take the opportunity to look within ourselves and begin to challenge what have become our own norms, finding ways to reach out to female surgeons from all walks of life and our male or otherwise non-gender conforming #HeforShe surgical peers to build a better future for all surgeons where everyone feels like she/he/they can belong.

Cheryl K. Zogg, MSPH, MHS, is an MD-PhD Candidate at Yale School of Medicine where she is currently in the process of completing her PhD in Chronic Disease Epidemiology (Quantitative Health Services Research). She is the 2020-2021 Chair of the AWS National Medical Student Committee and a Medical Student Member of the AWS Blog. Her clinical and research interests lie in the intersection of health policy and quality as it pertains to outcomes of surgical patients and differential access to care. She anticipates a career in academic surgery. Outside of work, Cheryl is an avid dancer, traveler, bookworm, and (aspiring) biker and runner who loves to mentor and teach. She can be found on Twitter as @CherylZogg.

Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.

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