By Shan Lansing
Queen Bee Syndrome is a social theory that describes how women in leadership roles sometimes expect more from female trainees than their male counterparts. I have heard this phenomenon alluded to a number of times during medical school, generally to sympathize with why a rotation may be particularly hard for female students. Most recently Queen Bee Syndrome came up in the midst of a completely awe-inspiring keynote address from Dr. Julie Freischlag on the importance of #HeForShe and #SheForShe. Each time it gets casually dropped into a conversation I leave feeling a bit stung that a woman who has been through the same conditions might pass them onto other female trainees. After Dr. Freischlag’s talk, I had a mix of those same feelings – though overshadowed with a heaping dose of inspiration. Though my instinct was to pity how this might affect my growth, it occurred to me that one day I will (hopefully) be in a leadership position overseeing the next generation of female students. I wondered what I need to do to prevent myself from falling into this same phenomenon, and what I can do now to ensure I’ll be prepared to support women in the future. Unfortunately, I currently have very little influence or standing to sponsor women in the big career-advancing ways I hope to in the future. That said, I’ve been brainstorming and the following is a short list of achievable ways I hope to support women as a modest medical student in 2020:
- Read books published by She Writes Press: This holiday season I enjoyed reading After Kilimanjaro, a novel by surgeon and author, Gayle Woodson. Dr. Woodson effortlessly describes a surgical resident on a quest to evade burnout who finds purpose in studying maternal mortality in Tanzania. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a captivating read. A visit to shewritespress.com or a quick search on Google yields a plethora of similar works published by female authors. During this coming year, I look forward to supporting these authors by buying and reading their work.
- Recommend female classmates for opportunities: One of the things I am working on is “to learn to say no” if an opportunity presents itself but I am already overcommitted. I can’t say I am very good at it, but I can attest I successfully said no at least one time last year. A few weeks ago, I was giving advice to a first-year medical student about the summer after M1; she said she was interested in Infectious Disease and I encouraged her to contact one of the ID attendings I had rotated with who was empowering, knowledgeable, and would make a great mentor. Two days later, the same attending emailed me and asked if I would be interested in starting a research project with him. Already overwhelmed with third-year rotations and other projects, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach as I wanted to say yes, but knew it would be a bad idea. Coincidentally, an hour later I ran into the first-year student and the little light bulb above my head blinked on. Instead of saying ‘no’, I had the opportunity to recommend another female student for a project in the field she’s interested in, with a mentor she would undoubtedly benefit from. Managing time efficiently and turning down opportunities will become significantly easier moving forward if I use it as an opportunity to sponsor another student.
- Be cognizant of my language when discussing specialties with third-year students: MS3 is a time to consider all specialties and envision committing to a residency tract. A natural conversation is to discuss what we’ve liked and where we’re thinking of applying. I’ve noticed that sometimes these conversations, while well-meaning, can lend themselves to making students feel like they do not belong in their hopeful specialty. For example, I often hear “I think you would be great in psychiatry/family medicine/etc.” and then the student awkwardly explains she’s interested in surgery. And I have even caught myself saying “You look like ortho” as an attempted encouraging response to a classmate who said he was interested in orthopedic surgery, without considering how someone else might feel overhearing that. This year, to avoid stereotyping or suggesting non-surgical fields to female classmates interested in surgery, I will practice asking Do you have a specialty in mind? and following it with I think you’d be really good at that. Because the specialty they belong in is the one they want to pursue, regardless of what they look like or what I think they would be good at.
- Continue to share the benefits of an AWS student membership: Being involved with AWS has been one of the most fun, inspiring, and empowering experiences of medical school. For $25 a year I became part of a global network of female surgeons. AWS members have access to surgical subspecialty resource guides that include a list of annual conferences, abstract submission deadlines, available scholarships, relevant journals, and more. The American Journal of Surgery reviews submissions from AWS authors and invites AWS members to serve as reviewers. The annual AWS Conference is an incredible opportunity to network with fellow students, surgical residents, and national leaders in surgery. These are a few of the things I hope to share with students this coming year so that they can benefit from an AWS membership as well.
As I progress in medicine, so too will the magnitude of opportunities I have to promote others; but for now, these are a few small (and achievable) things I can do to lift up the women around me. Queen Bee Syndrome, like many forms of bias, is likely implicit. This means that my intention to avoid falling into it must be conscious and decisive. I will start making mindful decisions to support women today, even in the form of small acts like reading their books and sharing the opportunities offered by AWS.
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