Women in Surgery – How to Deal

07 Nov 2018

There has been a lot of conversation about what is the role of women in the workplace and especially surgery with the #MeToo and #ILookLikeASurgeon campaigns and what are ways we can prepare ourselves as an upcoming generation of surgeons to deal with some of these issues. I talked to Dr. Nancy Baxter about some of the problems residents and trainees might face in the workplace and what’s her advice.

Dr. Nancy Baxter is a General Surgeon and Chief of the General Surgery Department at St. Michael’s Hospital,Toronto, Canada. She also has a Scientific appointment at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute of St. Michael’s Hospital and is a Professor of Surgery at the University of Toronto. Dr. Baxter went to medical school at the University of Toronto. Through the Surgeon-Scientist program, she completed her Ph.D. in Clinical Epidemiology and general surgery residency at the University of Toronto. She is board certified in colon, and rectal surgery.  Her primary research focus are health services outcomes and evaluation, and clinical effectiveness. Dr. Baxter also has a podcast, The Differential, that highlights various issues in health services delivery and research. You can follow Dr. Baxter on Twitter @enenbee.

What made you choose general surgery as a specialty?

I liked working with acutely and severely ill patients and surgery. General surgery is a specialty that’s also very broad (at least it was then) and you could branch off into many different specialties.

A meta-analysis published in 2016 reported high attrition rates among general surgeons, men 15% and women 25%. In light of the “Me Too” movement and the awareness campaigns on social media such as the #WomeninSurgery and #ILookLikeASurgeon, what do you think still needs to be changed to improve retention of women in General Surgery?

Attrition is present  in all specialties, but in surgery, some are due to its work demands.  However, there has historically been some exclusion of women and other people such as introverted men, people of colour or underrepresented minority groups in the schema of surgery. General surgery is hierarchical, and we are all subconsciously more comfortable choosing people, supporting people, mentoring people who look like us. Unless we take action this will not get any better. We have to do something now – everyone with a talent and passion for surgery needs to be welcomed.

The good thing is there is awareness now, and with continued discussion and action, I am optimistic that things will change.

What advice do you have for female medical students aspiring to be general surgeons?

Remember women physicians/surgeons experience sexism from patients and paramedical staff as well. Make a plan. You can either get crushed by (the sexism), or you can have a plan to deal with it. It is crucial to include men in the discussions, so they know what to do as well – there should be no bystanders in 2018. 

The next time, a patient asks you to change their diaper or bring them a bedpan because they think you are a nurse, you would know what to do and how to deal with this. And the guys also need to do something to support their female colleagues. It is everyone’s responsibility.

How do you achieve work-life balance?

The new term is now “work-life integration.” I think for me it was essential to accomplish my goals in life. If for someone else, that is having a family, then they should aim for that. For me, that was not my priority, and at the end of the day as long as I am doing what I want to do, I am (content).

You can follow Dr. Baxter on Twitter at @enenbee.


Interview Conducted by Anisa Nazir – AWS Communications Committee

Anisa Nazir is a medical graduate from Foundation University Medical College, Islamabad, Pakistan. She is currently a research student at St. Michael’s Hospital, Toronto, Canada studying antimicrobial resistance in critical care and global health. Anisa is also the VP for Communications for the Canadian Global Surgery Trainees Alliance which is the national working group of the InciSioN network. She is passionate about pursuing a career in general surgery and serves on the AWS Communications committee. She loves travelling, hiking and music. You can find her on Twitter @anisanazir.

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.

One Reply to “Women in Surgery – How to Deal”

  1. Great blog post and recommendations from Dr. Nancy Baxter. I would be interested to hear more from female surgeons in these harassment situations and how they successfully handled them. I find it extremely challenging to be accepted in the “good ole boy” clubs of a male dominated surgical field in the southern United States. I am told I am being “too sensitive” that “it is just a joke” and other similar comments. When I’ve confronted colleagues about harassment issues, I was labeled as a trouble maker and was isolated and alienated.
    Now that I am a mother and have a daughter, I would hate to think of her in a surgical residency enduring the sexual harassment and assault that I experienced. It needs to stop. We as women need to stand together, as a united front, to end it.

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