By Renee Hilton
I am asked the same question nearly every day by young female medical students aspiring to become surgeons. “Can I be a surgeon and have a normal life as a woman?” You will make sacrifices in any career that you choose in medicine, and surgery is no exception. I respond by offering encouragement while explaining the challenges and then showing them my “travel wall” in my office. My bookshelves are lined with photographs of my family and our many adventures during my years spent as a surgical resident and later as a fellow.
Even during the busiest time of my career I managed to find balance and not only have a life but really enjoy it.
Part of the hesitation to pursuing surgery for many women is that traditionally surgery has been a male dominated field, but this is slowly changing. In 2018 according to the AAMC, women applying to medical schools the US outnumbered the men, comprising 50.9% of applicants. The percentage of female surgeons has increased to 19.2%. We will see for the first time ever in 2019 a graduating class of five female chief residents at Tulane. While the growth has been slower than most would like, simply by continuing to increase our presence within the field I believe that we will inspire many women to pursue surgery.
Encouraging women surgeons already in practice is equally as important as inspiring the next generation to pursue the field. Gender bias remains prevalent within our specialty and is a source of frustration for nearly every surgeon I know. Addressing this problem remains a top priority for both male and female surgeons alike. So how do we encourage women surgeons in an environment where bias is present? We take action to eliminate the bias and encourage others to do the same.
Encourage other female surgeons to apply for academic promotion. Women are underrepresented in senior academic positions with only 8% of full professors being women and fewer than 10% of the country’s chair positions held by women. Why do so few women make it to full professor? There are glass ceilings and sticky floors, but also, we don’t apply. Females apply for promotion when they are 100% qualified for the position whereas men apply when they are 60% qualified. Without asking, you will not receive. We need to apply for promotion.
Encourage women surgeons to ask for a salary that reflects their expertise and position. Wage gaps still exist. According to U.S. News and the Medscape Physician Compensation Report 2018, female specialists earn significantly less than male specialists, a gap of 36%, when adjusted for equal work. Demand transparency from your institution. With transparency comes accountability. The AWS statement on gender salary equity is available via the Gender Equity Toolkit.
Encourage women surgeons to take advantage of social media; it provides an excellent platform for promoting and encouraging women in surgery. Tweet or post about your friends’ success, share their latest article or congratulate them for receiving their first grant. Engage with women both within and outside of your specialty to collaborate on research projects. Being a woman in surgery can feel isolating if you are alone at your institution, but social media can provide an opportunity to interact with amazing women across the country and world. I look forward to meeting my “twitter friends” at conferences each year. I have received speaking, committee and research opportunities through contacts on social media.
Encourage women surgeons to participate in women in surgery or women in medicine organizations both locally and nationally. The sense of belonging to a group has been shown to improve retention and physical well-being in educational settings. (Salles, et al) Belonging is a simple concept, but it carries enormous impact. It is not limited to residency.
Inspiring and encouraging women in surgery should be effortless for most of us. Speak loudly and often about loving your job. Dispel the myths of being a female surgeon to students and residents- you can have a family and an amazing life while pursuing your career. Encourage other women surgeons to demand equal pay, academic advancement, and the same level of respect as their male counterparts. Take advantage of social media and women inclusive organizations- find a place to belong. Lastly, be kind. If you see that someone is struggling, ask how you can help. Sometimes the greatest encouragement and inspiration is a kind word or a helping hand.
Dr. L. Renee Hilton is an Assistant Professor at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University Medical Center. She is the Section Chief of Minimally Invasive Surgery and the Director of the Center of Obesity and Metabolism at Augusta University. She is also the Associate Program Director for the general surgery residency program. She completed her general surgery residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital at the University of Miami and then fellowship in bariatric and minimally invasive surgery at Yale University. She serves in multiple leadership roles within the department including being the director of the residency surgical skills lab and chair of the Surgical Simulation Committee. She currently resides and practices in Augusta, Georgia. She enjoys spending time with her family, hiking, skiing, boating, traveling and pretty much any activity that involves the outdoors. You can find her on Twitter @reneehilton30
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.