I recently spoke at another university ‘Women in Medicine’ night. I find these events both enjoyable and educational. It’s a great opportunity to meet colleagues and other young women who are studying to become doctors and try and inspire and instruct some students (both male and female) into what I hope will be fulfilling and productive careers.
But every time I get ready for one of these talks, two things go through my head. The first being that I have no idea what they really want to hear. I had some very good advice that they just want to see that we women surgeons are real and that it can be done. (Turns out that is true) The other thought I have is how relevant is this anymore? After all, over half of medical students in a number of universities now are female. And then…
Whilst waiting to talk to a patient on the phone “Hang on, the nurse is here to see me” (after seeing them every day for a week and doing the surgery)
From a male physician “Women should just work harder to make up the pay gap. And because they have time off for children.”
From a colleague involved in conflict resolution, man (and recent) cases of women in distress due to discrimination in the workplace, resulting in illness or leaving the profession.
Let’s be honest. In my country, I won’t be injured or killed for walking down the street with a man who is not my husband. I can drive, I can vote, I can be educated and I can be gainfully employed. When you look at things that way, I am very fortunate. However, this does not mean that we don’t have some problems with the way our society views and sometimes treats professional women. Whether it be medicine, corporations, politics, law, trades or engineering, women are by and large, a minority group. Which means that for younger women wanting to join the ranks of the patriarchy, finding someone to identify with is pretty difficult. And we know that gender plays an important role in mentoring in medicine.
As a junior doctor, my mentors were male doctors. They were and still are, excellent mentors and I am very appreciative of their guidance. In fact, on several occasions, they were insightful and sensitive enough to make sure that I was aware that some unique challenges may face me in my career and made sure that I was equipped to think them through as part of my career and life planning. Sometimes though, I really wanted to know how that actually played out for someone like me. I was very resolved to the fact that I was to some extent going to have to carve out my own path in life. And I have been okay with that.
There is some research around that by and large supports the availability of women mentors for young women doctors and medical students. Gender matching can have a very positive influence on a mentor-mentee relationship with the ‘mentee’ being more comfortable to seek out advice from a mentor of the same gender without worrying that gender will colour the perception of the question or the advice itself. What it may boil down to is as simple as my talks for women in medicine nights. We just want to see that it can be done and learn from a mentor’s journey.
Finding a female mentor, in surgery especially, can be tricky. Finding any mentor can be tricky. It is a relationship like any other, where both party needs to be satisfied with in order to work. When we have a lack of women on a a sheer numbers basis, finding a gender equal you identify with can be really hard!
Social media has been awash in the last few months with campaigns and hashtags such as #thisiswhatwelook like, a campaign created by an anaethetist and a philosopher to challenge societal and professional ideals of what professional people look like. It’s extended to virtually every profession and skill you can think of; CEO, drummer, programmer, lawyer and surgeons. I got on board pretty early with my ‘This is what a surgeon looks like’ t-shirt and it’s been great fun to be a part of. Recently, engineers joined in with a hashtag #ilooklikeanengineer when a young woman apparently was not considered to be what we would consider ‘looking like an engineer’ and has crossed professional lines to surgeons with #ilooklikeasurgeon now trending. And I love it. Being a part of this feel inclusive, inspiring and just fun. In the last few months, I’ve chatted with women surgeons around the world about surgery and not about surgery. But by and large, it’s been about positive change and positive role models. It’s about changing perceptions and expectations and encouraging young women into a profession that we all love.
Every time I talk about being a woman in surgery, I want to achieve a few things. Firstly, I want to show people that I have a cool job and inspire others to maybe try it out. I love when a junior doctor (male or female) tells me they’ve loved cardiac surgery and now they want to do it. Secondly, I want to share that you absolutely do not have to be a certain race, gender, personality, sports fan or other group to be a surgeon. In fact, diversifying our specialty to involve women, for example, is a fantastic thing. Every different person has something unique to bring to the table and we should encourage that enrichment. And finally, I want to show the world that I don’t have to be a stereotype to be a surgeon. Because I am a surgeon and this is what I look like.
Mentors can certainly mentor across gender and racial boundaries. But let’s be real, in a world where people can still discriminate or belittle or neglect you like my two short (and very recent) examples, a ground swell against stereotypes can only be a good thing. If I encourage one young woman to be a surgeon just by being one myself, that’s wonderful. If together, we can all make positive changes in a society and a system that is imperfect, then that is amazing and is truly an achievement to behold.