Food For Thought: Fearing “Leaning In”

20 Dec 2015

By Shree Agrawal

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Sheryl Sandberg’s “leaning in” has been featured, referenced, or adapted for most women in medicine/surgery events I have attended in the past year, and for good reason.  Five years later, her TED talk and Lean In book continuously remind me of the complex issues we face, as women, in all environments—professional and personal.

In leading my own medical school chapter of the Association of Women Surgeons*, my personal and professional interactions with my female peers have highlighted the fears many female medical students have about “leaning in” to a potential career in surgery.  When talking about finding mentors, exploring research opportunities, seeking shadowing experiences, or other issues surrounding a future surgical career, I usually hear a variety of responses:

  • “I am afraid of wasting a mentor’s time, especially if I eventually choose a different area of medicine.”
  • “I just do not have much experience with research and I may not meet the expectations of a PI.”
  • “I have come to terms with the fact that I want to become a surgeon, unfortunately.  I am afraid now I will have to sacrifice my personal life in the future.”
  • “I am nervous about being in an OR.  I do not know what I should be doing or where I need to go.  Maybe I will just wait until our clinical rotations to explore surgery.”

It is clear in these statements—not only do we  “negative speak” about our capabilities and goals but also we negatively consider the perceived time and resources of potential mentors or professors.  We are more likely to hesitate about leaning in to surgery for fear of failing, exhausting resources, and being perceived as incompetent. These fears only manifest in the 2014 AAMC statistics which report only 25-30% of total surgical trainees to be female physicians, excluding neurosurgery, orthopedic surgery, and thoracic surgery.

So for every level of training in medicine, how have you found ways to lean in, and what advice would you give to those who may be hesitant about exploring surgical subspecialties?

*Follow this link, if you are interested in starting an AWS Chapter at your medical school

Shree Agrawal

Shree Agrawal is a member of the AWS Medical Student Committee and is a second year medical student at Case Western Reserve University. She is passionate about clinical research surrounding patient decision-making and medical education.



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.

2 Replies to “Food For Thought: Fearing “Leaning In””

  1. Great questions Shree! Here’s my 2 cents…

    The first thing to remember about mentorship is that a good mentor should be helping you try to get to your goals, not his or hers. We aren’t looking for “Mini-me’s”. When choosing a mentor, think of someone who not only is doing something interesting professionally, but seems to have a good head on his/her shoulders. Someone who’s opinion you feel like you can trust, who can ask you good questions to help you realize your goals.

    The most important characteristic of a good researcher if follow through. Most everything else can be taught. Rather than making a commitment to pick your mentor’s specialty, you should make a commitment to following through on projects that you are working on – whether or not you ultimately decide on that specialty. The drop out rate for projects is at least 50% – so if you follow through you are already above average!

    Surgeons generally work a lot. But so do most medical professionals. There are lots of examples of surgeons with great work life integration. If this is your passion, there is a way to make it work.

    If you are nervous about being in the OR, there is no better time to try it out than prior to your rotation when you are not being evaluated or graded. This is a great opportunity to be a fly on the wall and just watch how things work. One of the characteristic of a great students is someone who see what needs to be done (like placing of foleys, clipping of skin, moving the bed) and then does it appropriately. By watching the flow of the operation prior to rotation and being observant, you can be well placed to be a helpful member of the team on rotation. Then again, some of us didn’t even know that we wanted to be surgeons until we were on rotation – so it’s never too late.

  2. I think this is wonderful advice and I completely agree! I hope we are all able to take the plunge and explore some of these options. It is very easy to not prioritize our own exploration and development, especially within surgery. What I have found especially helpful to exploring each of these options was not only joining my own AWS chapter but also attending the AWS conference and becoming involved with regional events like our Northeast Ohio Women in Surgery speaker series.

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