#HeForShe: A Call for Action

20 Feb 2019

by Apoorve Nayyar

With its unusually large proportion of highly educated and qualified women, medicine should be leading the way in gender equity. Leaders who have it within their power to address barriers to the advancement of women — and all underrepresented people — should behave ethically and resolve to act, expeditiously and with steadfastness.” – Dr. Julie K. Silver, Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School & founder, sheleadshealthcare.com

I raise my voice – not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard. We cannot succeed when half of us are held back.” – Malala Yousafzai  

In 1847, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to be admitted to a medical school in the United States, after overcoming significant opposition. In 2017, nearly a century and a half later, more women than men were enrolled in medical schools in the U.S. for the first time in history. While we have made great strides in reducing the barriers to inclusion of women in medicine, true gender equity in healthcare remains elusive. Study after study has demonstrated that women are paid less for equal work, promoted less often, are less likely to have their research funded and are more likely to have their professional capabilities undermined, compared to their men counterparts. A recent report by the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) showed that only 22 of the 369 surgery department chairs were women (<6%). From differences in leadership to gaps in salaries, subtle sexist remarks to overt discrimination, bullying, and sexual harassment, the systemically biased culture continues to thrive, thwarting the progress towards complete social and economic gender equity in healthcare. The current status quo not only impedes the professional development of the women in surgery, but also discourages the next generation of well-qualified, extremely talented women from pursuing careers in surgery.

While countless fierce and formidable women have paved the path towards gender equity, the majority of men have historically been mere spectators to the conversation of gender equity. #HeForShe is a call to action – a commitment from men to join the conversation, to be an ally and advocate with women to end gender biases and gender disparities. #HeForShe is an understanding that a fair, diverse and inclusive environment makes us all better, makes our teams better and ultimately makes patient care better. #HeForShe is the belief, that together we can achieve the goal of equity on all fronts within our lifetimes.


What does it mean to be an ally?

  • Ask: It starts here. Check in with your friends, colleagues and co-workers about the challenges that they may be facing and how you can help eliminate those. Collaborate with your women colleagues to assist in gender parity efforts.
  • Awareness: Gender disparities have persisted for centuries, as it has been well documented in the literature. Make yourself aware of the gaps in parity in your profession and at your organization. Acknowledging the scope of the problem is the first step towards instituting a change.
  • Recognize any of your own implicit biases; awareness is the first step to eliminating these biases and ensuring that your actions and conversations are not influenced by them. We all have flaws; it’s the conscious effort to combat our flaws that makes us better. Check in on implicit biases here.
  • Advocate for implementation of policies that ensure equal rights, equal opportunities and fair treatment of everyone. If you see something amiss, speak up and advocate for what is right.
  • Call out any sexist behaviors: A few simple responses that can often help:
    • “I’m sorry, can you please say that again?”
    • “Did you mean to say ____? I am sure you didn’t mean it this way, but it could be interpreted as _____”
    • “I am curious why you think that”
    • “Help me understand what you mean by that”

If someone repetitively engages in sexist dialogue, have a frank conversation with him/her and let them know it is NOT okay.  

  • Invite, Recommend, Amplify: For any scientific meeting, panel, leadership position, award, there is always more than zero qualified women for the position – the inexorable zero. If you are invited to be a part of a panel or a meeting that has all-male composition (i.e. manel), recommend women counterparts. Be mindful of gender ratios and ensure inclusivity.
  • Remember, it is not about you: Be humble, ask women how you can help in existing gender equity efforts. Refrain from speaking for women and don’t attempt to explain gender equity to women championing gender parity efforts. Avoid the pedestal effect (unearned praise, attention or escalation of men for combating unfair policies/behaviors against women). Be brave enough to acknowledge that it is not heroic to be fair and inclusive, to do something that a multitude of women have been working on for years; you are not special for doing the right thing.  
  • Provide a safe space to talk, express thoughts and feelings as well as to share any unpleasant experiences. Provide resources and support to anyone that has been wronged; ensure their safety and assist in recourse as needed.
  • Be an agent of change: from the top down or from the bottom up, at every level you can.
  • Model the right behavior: It goes without saying that you should treat your colleagues with dignity and respect. Make no assumptions about the responsibilities women may want to take on. Be fair, be flexible. Communicate effectively to quell any inappropriate behavior. Allow women to clearly state their thoughts & opinions, without interruption.
  • Don’t mansplain (if you are unsure what mansplaining is, here is a brief lexicon of behaviors to avoid.
  • Join The Association of Women Surgeons!

Most of being a good male ally comes down to being a good human being. Am I a good ally? I don’t know the answer to that but I believe together we can be better. Gender equity is a collective responsibility – it is not a women’s issue; it is a human issue. Organizations where men also actively participate in gender diversity efforts progress faster in achieving gender equity goals. #HeForShe is an advocate for equity, diversity and inclusion at all levels, someone who is not only mindful of gender disparities but also works persistently to eliminate them. Why be #HeForShe? Because simply put, it is the right thing to do.

I am #HeForShe, are you?


Apoorve Nayyar, MD is a breast surgery research fellow at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (@UNCSurgery). He is a proud member of the AWS, a proponent of #HeForShe in medicine and serves on the AWS Twitter subcommittee (@womensurgeons). Dr. Nayyar aspires to be a surgical oncologist; his research interests include healthcare disparities in cancer care and gender inequity in medicine. Outside of the hospital, he loves to travel and enjoys nature photography! You can find him on Instagram @apoorvenayyar and Twitter @apoorvenayyar

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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