Lessons from the Michigan Women’s Surgery Collaborative (MWSC) Women in Surgery Leadership Development Conference

14 Dec 2017
By Andrea Merrill, PGY5, MGH

Growing up I never idolized traditional movie stars and celebrities; my heroes came in the form of Hillary Clinton, Mia Hamm and Kerri Strug, women who through hard work persevered and succeeded in their careers. As I matured and shifted into the field of surgery, new heroes emerged. These heroes were women who had paved the way for me to be where I am now, women who took the first steps to demonstrate that women deserve leadership roles in surgery, women such as Dr. Julie Freischlag. I have to admit, I was a bit “star struck” during my residency interview with her at Johns Hopkins. So when I saw the all-star lineup of Drs. Julie Freischlag, Rebecca Minter, Melina Kibbe, Amalia Cochran, Aurora Pryor, Heena Santry, Julie Ann Sosa, and Sandra Wong a the Women in Surgery Leadership Development Conference run by the Michigan Women’s Surgery Collaborative (MWSC) I knew I had to attend.

This is a very exciting time to be a woman in surgery. While things are still far from where they need to be, many events have laid the groundwork for tangible future change. Twitter and social media campaigns such as #ILookLikeASurgeon, #NYerORCoverChallenge and #HeforShe have brought much awareness to implicit gender bias in surgery, which is certainly the first step. This was further highlighted in the captivating AAS Presidential Address by Caprice Greenberg in February 2017. In 2014, there were 4 women chairs of surgery in the United States. Today, there are 20. The gender pay gap has become a more prominent issue with a joint American College of Surgeons and AWS Statement on gender salary equity this past summer. With all of these changes occurring so rapidly in the past few years, we seem to be approaching a “tipping point” to achieve equality for women in surgery.

One way to get past the tipping point is to teach women surgeons, early on, the skills they need to become leaders. This was the goal of the MWSC’s Women in Surgery Leadership Development Conference held early November in below-freezing temperatures in Michigan. The MWSC was founded in 2016 by Drs. Dana Telem, Dawn Coleman, Janet Dombrowski, Erika Newman, Jennifer Waljee, and Gurjit Sandhu. As Dr. Telem explains it, “It started as a conversation between us […] about how we never really felt gender until we started approaching mid-career shifts. We wanted to address the issue of advancement of women in surgery since it is not just a pipeline issue.The goal is to figure out how we promote each other and how we develop the essential skills we need to get to the next step and [..] how do we disseminate this knowledge to others.” It wasn’t just about addressing issues facing women in surgery. It was born out of the idea of creating leadership.

Conference registration was free for attendees and completely funded by the University of Michigan Department of Surgery (incredible visible support #HeforShe!!!). All section heads also sponsored travel scholarships. I was lucky to win one of these scholarships via a Twitter contest. The first day of the 2-day conference focused on self-improvement with a session entitled “From Surviving to Thriving”. We learned tips for resilience from Dr. Dawn Coleman who talked about both individual and system-level strategies for preventing burnout. Dr. Erika Newman shared personal stories to exemplify how to maintain interpersonal relationships, both personal and professional, to help your career soar. Next we moved on to personal wellness advices from Dr. Amalia Cochran. “Be strategic in your yes’s and definitive in your no’s; every yes is a no to something else in your life,” she advised. Surgical education scientist Dr. Gurjit Sandhu talked about pushing yourself out of your comfort zones to find your zone of proximal development and grow. Finally, women-in-surgery champion, Dr. Justin Dimick, gave a talk on amplification and sponsorship. The first night ended with a networking reception where I got to meet some of my surgery “heroes”!

The next day focused on giving us tools to become an effective leader. All participants were asked to fill out behavior surveys prior to the conference to analyze our personal and leadership styles and our conflict management styles. Executive coach, Janet Dombrowski , then used the results of our surveys to give two interactive talks about how to harness our leadership and conflict management styles to be effective leaders. Her advice can be summed up by tweeter extraordinaire, Dr. Susan Pitt:

Interspersed with Janet’s talks, we heard from women trailblazers in surgery who have succeeded in becoming leaders in the field: Drs. Jennifer Waljee, Aurora Pryor, Julie Ann Sosa, Rebecca Minter, Sandra Wong, Melina Kibbe, Heena Santry, Rebecca Minter, Julie Freischlag, and Amalia Cochran. The list reads like a “who’s who” of women in surgery! Each shared their personal hard-earned advice for advancing in surgery, ranging from topics of negotiation and conflict-management to navigating career challenges. The talks can best be summed up with the amazing visual abstracts created (on the spot!) by University of Michigan resident, Chelsea Harris.

While there have been many conferences dedicated to women in surgery, many have focused mostly on defining the issues that women face (such as gender bias, pay gaps, etc.). This conference was unique as its goal was to give junior women in surgery the tools to overcome these problems in order to achieve leadership roles. To say I left the conference inspired would be an understatement. There was so much positive energy buzzing throughout the entire conference. Everyone was genuinely supportive of each other and dedicated to the mission of advancing women in surgery. The strategies we learned for communication and conflict management are tools I have already started incorporating into my everyday life as a chief resident. The rest, I will keep in my mind as I start searching for my first job in the next few years. And in the meantime, I will remain in awe of the opportunity to meet some of my real-life heroes!

@JCDAdvisors (Janet Dombrowski)

Dr. Andrea Merrill is a chief resident in general surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. During her residency she did a year of breast surgery outcomes research followed by a yearlong editorial fellowship at the New England Journal of Medicine. Next year she will be starting a surgical oncology fellowship at the James Cancer Hospital at Ohio State University. She is currently serving as the AWS Resident and Fellow Committee representative. You can find her on twitter at @AndreaLMerrill.

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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