Changing the paradigm

13 Mar 2014

by Robert Swendiman

Whether I am at Grand Rounds, a department meeting, or the American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress, it is often like looking into a mirror. I cannot help noticing the abundance of white men – especially at “the top.” While I meet numerous female and minority surgical residents and junior faculty, most of the chairs, program directors, and full professors are men.

Outside of the medical profession, surgery has an “old boys club” reputation. But I come from a school of leadership where difference and diversity are more than just opportunities for social progress – they are requirements. So I was disappointed when I perceived the stereotype affirmed. The more I look around, the more men I see.

Constant inquiry (or “quality assessment and quality improvement” in medical terminology) is an important component of leadership. Without it, we fail to analyze, understand, and improve the systems in which we are a part. Thus, I began my investigation, and what I found was shocking. Despite the increasing number of women entering general surgery residency programs – from 10% in 1980 to 36% in 2011 – as of last year, women only represent 9% of all full professors, 17% of associate professors, and 25% of assistant professors in surgery. 1, 2 While these numbers are obviously disproportionate, what is perhaps more concerning is that they also remain stagnate. In the last 15 years, these percentages have not changed. 3

Despite the fact that men and women enter academic medicine at equal rates, the rate promotion is uneven. 4-6 Though men and women start at similar ages, the mean age of attaining “Professor” status in approximately five years younger for men. 4 “Even after adjusting for number of publications, amount of grant support, tenure versus other career track, number of hours worked, and specialty, women [remain] substantially less likely than men to be promoted.” 4

Thus, female surgeons remain impressively underrepresented in the ranks of surgical faculty at 21% of the workforce (the average across all medical departments is 37%). 2 Of all academic departments in the basic and clinical sciences, surgery ranks second to last in percentage of total female faculty members (orthopedics, 15%). 2 However, in other specialties, women hold more than half of all faculty positions (obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, and public health and preventive medicine). 2

The famous surgeon, Dr. William Halsted, once quipped that the issue with surgeons taking call every other night was that residents would miss half of the cases. In the same manner, when we exclude 51% of the population from top leadership positions, we are missing out on half of the talent. If fewer than 10% of professors of surgery are women – and that figure has not changed in more than a decade – I wonder, “Is our academic community really moving surgery forward?”

Fellow colleague, Sophia McKinley, wrote about her own early lessons in leadership. She states, “Individuals at every position in a hierarchy can exhibit leadership.” I agree, and I see this lack of diversity as an urgent opportunity for real-time leadership at every level. As a white male, I think it is my job to participate in changing this paradigm – chipping away at the explicit and implicit barriers that male surgeons still espouse in surgery, advocating for and leveraging diversity, and staying curious about surgery’s present and future challenges. As an inspiring academic surgeon, this also meant research, which is why I joined a multi-institutional team from UNC, Harvard, and Stanford to better understand how we can change the status quo. I know it’s not enough, and change will not happen overnight, but doing nothing is not a viable option.

I was often asked on the interview trail, “Can an intern or a medical student really be a leader?”

This is the answer I give them.



1. Cochran A, Freischlag JA, Numann P. Women, surgery, and leadership: where we have been, where we are, where we are going. JAMA Surg 2013;148(4):312-3.

2. Association of American Medical Colleges. “Women in Academic Medicine and Science: Statistics and Benchmarking Report 2011-2012.” Table 3: Distribution of full-time faculty by department, rank, and gender, 2012. <>. Accessed November 6, 2013.

3. Sexton KW, Hocking KM, Wise E, et al. Women in academic surgery: the pipeline is busted. J Surg Educ 2012;69(1):84-90.

4. Zhuge Y, Kaufman J, Simeone DM et al. Is there still a glass ceiling for women in academic surgery? Ann Surg 2011;253:637–643.

5. Schroen AT, Brownstein MR, Sheldon GF. Women in academic general surgery. Acad Med 2004;79:310

6. Buckley LM, Sanders K, Shih M, et al. Obstacles to promotion? Values of women faculty about career success and recognition. Acad Med 2000;75:283-8.


Robert Swendiman is a dual-degree M.D./M.P.P student at UNC School of Medicine and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He spent his time at Harvard as a Dubin Fellow for Emerging Leaders at the Center for Public Leadership, researching how leadership principles can be applied to medical education. Robert is participating in the 2014 Match cycle, and is interested in pediatric surgery.

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