Mentorship: Vital to Women on Both Sides of the Relationship

10 Feb 2020

By Erin M. Corsini, MD and Mara B. Antonoff, MD

 As surgical trainees, we have a tendency to think of mentorship as a one-way street, a gift that is bestowed down from those with great experience to those seeking to climb to such ranks in the future.  However, successful mentor-mentee relationships should be rewarding for both parties, and can be especially meaningful between women navigating specialties in which they are underrepresented. As excitement builds leading up to the next AWS chat on mentorship, we’d like to share perspectives from both sides of the relationship and some fodder for contemplation. 

In the months prior to beginning my first year as a clinical research fellow at a new institution, I was in my second trimester of my first pregnancy – a reality that had not previously been evident when I interviewed for the position.  This was how I would begin my 2-year research fellowship at a prestigious institution amidst an entirely new set of faculty who I greatly desired to impress. To say I was worried is an understatement. I was starting my new job already requiring a significant amount of time off in the coming months, and no one yet had a clue.  Having absolutely no idea who to tell, when to tell, or what to say, I requested a meeting with my future mentor, Dr. Antonoff, and she was kind enough to find time in her schedule. 

I told her I was pregnant, but was exceedingly worried about how this would be perceived, as I’d be starting my job already needing to take a significant leave in a few months’ time (I had already calculated that my 8-week leave would be 8% of my total fellowship, which felt exceedingly indulgent).  I said I was worried the Department would think I was taking advantage of their time and money to have my baby. I accidentally cried – not really the first impression I was hoping to make. Dr. Antonoff reassured me that this would not be the disaster I had worked up in my head. Everyone would be supportive and happy for me.  ‘I will support you’ and ‘Please let me know how I can help you,’ she reiterated several times. She explained to me how to inform the necessary parties, and she offered to help me figure out the best approach to succeed in my new position while maintaining a healthy pregnancy.”

“I was wrapping up my first day back to work as a surgeon mother-of-four.  I didn’t have any cases that day, but, despite my attempts to keep up with clinical and administrative tasks during my maternity leave, my first day back was jam-packed with meetings that had been put off for weeks.  A seasoned mom, I had my day figured out perfectly with pumping breaks between my meetings, and I’d prepared exactly the right number of bottles at home for my day at work. I knew that my last meeting was with Dr. Corsini, our future research resident whom I was so excited to mentor.  In our previous meeting, she had been so poised, so smart, so conscientious, and I was thrilled that she was interested in our specialty. But that day, Erin seemed especially nervous. She told me that she was expecting! I could not have been more thrilled for her. Not only was this amazing, talented young doctor going to enter my beloved surgical specialty, she was going to do it as a surgeon-mom!  She was worried, and she didn’t need to be. Whatever challenges I’d endured during my pregnancies, I was going to do my best to try to make things better for her. I knew then that she would be a phenomenal researcher and prolific investigator, and, as she has exceeded all of our expectations, I could not be more proud. I firmly believe that she will be a leader in our field, and I will be so grateful to have played a role in her training.

That day, as we discussed Erin’s path, I kept checking my watch, as 4:40, 4:45, 4:50 ticked by.  I prayed that she wouldn’t notice, as I wanted in every way to ensure that Erin knew how much I supported her.  Eventually, I explained that I had not left a 5PM bottle at home, and I needed to get back to nurse my baby. Erin dried her tears, helped me pack up my stuff, and rushed me out the door.  Our conversation continued via text that night, and via numerous other avenues ever since then. Still, as I reflect on that day, we bonded over shared needs, shared emotions, and a shared understanding of being women in surgery.  The relationship that day was absolutely reciprocal, and it always will be.”

Previous work in the areas of surgical education and mentorship has demonstrated the important networking role that women surgeons play for one another.  Specifically, despite a relative lack of females in surgical specialties, as compared to males, female trainees consistently wish to foster same-sex mentorship relationships but often are unable to fulfill this need. This is especially true in cardiothoracic surgery, a specialty in which the overall proportion of women pales in comparison to men (93% male), and female trainees find themselves without these meaningful relationships. This is likely also a prevalent issue in other heavily male-dominated surgical subspecialties, such as orthopedic surgery (95%), neurosurgery (92%), urology (91%), and vascular surgery (91%).

The issue of underrepresentation is further compounded by the existence of “sticky floors and glass ceilings.”  The reality is that there are very few women within these fields who can serve as the exemplar of “having it all” – a booming practice, active research interests, global volunteerism, award recipients from medical specialty societies, full professorship, or leadership within the department or at the national level, all while maintaining interesting hobbies, balanced family life, and a meaningful life outside of work. These role models are the women that many trainees seek, but their existence becomes more elusive in such exclusive echelons.  

But how important is identifying a same-sex mentor?  What if there are no true options within your institution or city?  Are there other ways to foster this type of relationship? What topics are off-limits in discussion with your mentor?  We look forward to delving into all of these questions and sharing our dual perspective as a mentor-mentee team during our joint Association of Women Surgeons/Women in Thoracic Surgery TweetChat on February 17th at 8PM EST!

Join @womensurgeons along with our moderators Dr. Mara Antonoff (@maraantonoff), Dr. Virginia Litle (@vlitlemd) and Dr. Erin Corsini (@ErinMCorsiniMD). This tweetchat is co-sponsored by Women in Thoracic Surgery (@WomenInThoracic). The questions will be posted directly from the @WomenSurgeons twitter account and you can also find them following the hashtag #AWSchat. If you haven’t participated in a tweetchat with us before, check out this tutorial written by Dr. Heather Yeo (@heatheryeomd) to know more.

We will be discussing the following topics during our tweetchat:

1. How should I identify a mentor who is a good fit for me?

2. a) Should a female trainee have a female mentor?b) What if I cannot find a female mentor within my institution or city?  Are there other avenues to foster this type of relationship, or am I simply out of luck?

    b) How many mentors do I need?

3. Is it okay to have different mentors for different aspects of training or different time periods of training/professional development?

4. Does a mentor-mentee relationship need to be formalized? Do I need to ask someone to be your mentor?

5. What are the expectations for a mentor? What are the expectations for a mentee?

6. Is it okay to talk to a mentor about non-medical topics, such as family/home life, pregnancy, work-life balance?  What about venting about a really terrible day – does that cross boundaries?

Dr. Erin Corsini is a general surgery resident at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX. She is completing a two-year clinical research fellowship and Master of Science in Clinical Research with the Department of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center before returning to clinical residency this summer. Dr. Corsini grew up outside of Boston, MA and attended Albany Medical College. She is a mother of 1 and is an aspiring thoracic surgeon. You may follow her on twitter @ErinMCorsiniMD.

Dr. Mara Antonoff is a mother of 4 and Assistant Professor in Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. She is the Website Editor and Social Media Director for Women in Thoracic Surgery. At MD Anderson, Dr. Antonoff is also the Associate Program Director for the Thoracic Surgery Training Program. Her twitter handle is


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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