Today I am super excited, I have been asked to be a guest blogger and contribute to the Women in Surgery blog where they publish research on the experience of women in surgery; the website is run by the RCSEng and University of Exeter, thank you to them for the invitation. This is the post below with a link to their website here. My views on this blog are just that, they do not represent all women and are based on my experiences and peculiarities (of which I have many)…
On Role Models (and surgery as a boyfriend)
Much as changed in the near 20 years I have been in and around the medical profession and the progressive feminisation has been wonderful to see and be part of.
There are many women in surgery, far more now than when I was a medical student and I don’t think there is any real problem with being a woman in surgery. Some of the women in surgery I encountered early in my career had children and husbands but very few of them were living a life I aspired to. In fact, if anything they put me off and some made me feel even less welcome than the boys. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie Legally Blonde, imagine that but everyone in white coats; times have changed though and we have a gradual spread of women throughout surgery, not all of whom are doing it like the men did.
I have to acknowledge my parents input, who have an unshakeable belief (which they passed on to me) that I can do anything that I want to do. I was never expected to be slower, weaker or less at anything compared to my brothers and male cousins so not doing general surgery because I was a girl never crossed my mind.
It was on everyone else’s mind though, when I first started popping up in theatre as a super keen student and junior house officer the animosity from some middle grade doctors and the theatre nurses was incredible, I was never expected to actually, really be a surgeon. Also, some well meaning consultants would gently suggest that maybe I would change my mind about general surgery once I had a husband and children and would I really want to work weekends and night shifts forever? Maybe I would think about doing general practice?
We now have hordes of female medical students and junior doctors all wanting to do surgery, most of whom want to come and spend some time hanging about with me. I am aware that as the part time mummy surgeon in great shoes I have a responsibility as a role model to them. When I was a medical student I would have run a mile from the likes of me, but this lot are sent to me by my colleagues to get “the talk”. Three things about this situation bother me, which I no doubt contribute to by seeming approachable.
Firstly, they seem to think that my personal life and circumstances are something that they can ask all about. How do I organise my childcare? Have I encountered any discrimination problems? How do I manage to get up and dressed and organise things and get there for 0745? How much maternity leave did I take? Do I ever feel guilty about leaving my children and not making it home for bedtime? So far nobody has asked me if I had vaginal deliveries but they have gotten close.
I don’t mind this when it is a doctor I actually know, someone who is considering embarking on a career as a surgeon but I do mind having to tell every student that comes through the department about how my kids are looked after and whether or not I have a cleaning lady (I do, twice a week in fact, so I can get to the gym on my days off and not spend the time ironing) or if I do the cooking at home. They also want to know what Mr KBW does and how we make our marriage work with our busy schedules. This seems totally irrelevant to being a surgeon and more to do with being a mummy and a wife, it amazes me that these young girls are thinking about their 35 year old selves, I certainly never did.
The other thing that bothers me is that some are entirely focused on being discriminated against because they are a woman. This has not been my experience at all, there have been very few people (one particularly rude man who is responsible for most of the bile duct injuries within 100 miles of Bighospital) who have openly discriminated against me.
The only real problem I’ve had because I am a woman is getting elbowed in the chest during laparoscopic surgery all the time and trying to accommodate my enormous 38 weeks pregnant abdomen at the table during laparotomies. Not that I think being female has made it easier, even if my colleagues (and so called friends) said my viva exams were dumbed down because I was the pretty girl. Maybe they were, but I knew the answers to the harder stuff as well so bollocks to them.
Finally, not one single boy has ever especially come to me or been sent to me to discuss a career as a surgeon, perhaps they get sent to the men.
So what do I tell these girls in “The Talk”?
I admit there is the endless everyday sexism that all women encounter but I suspect it is not any different for women in law, the police, schools and offices. They see this on the ward round, in clinic, with my bosses and there is no point ignoring it. For example, I won a prize last month and was quite pleased about it “well done” said my boss “a lot of guys on the panel?” as he gave me a “friendly” tug on my pony tail, ho ho. This is everyday sexism, as are the patients who reply “all the better for seeing you sweetheart” when I do my rounds and enquire how they are; it used to flummox me or make me angry or embarrass me.
This isn’t discrimination based on gender, but it is sexist behaviour. It could be demeaning if I let it demean me. So I tell the students that they will experience very little discrimination but occasional sexism but it probably isn’t any worse than in any other job.
I tell them that they have to love surgery because it will take them away from people they love. They have to love it like a crazy obsessed stalker lady. First days at school, Christmas Day, nativity plays, family birthdays, your wedding anniversary…the list of days you won’t and can’t be there is endless. If you don’t love your job you will resent the time you spend there when you feel you should be somewhere else and that makes you a bad doctor. The hours at the computer writing papers, the long trips travelling cheaply to conferences alone, the late nights etc.
Surgery is like a boyfriend who constantly makes you prove how much you love him and plays games with your feelings. The semi mandatory research PhD and MD degrees are like getting a tattoo of his name and just when you think he loves you, and you and he are getting on so well he will punch you in the face with a complication that makes you buckle at the knees.
I also tell them to speak to people about it and urge them to get feedback on their hands and technical skills. Not everyone can do surgery and the sooner you realise that you have hands suited for a career as an occupational health physician the better. I also try and discourage them from being rigidly attached to a specialty very early. Better to want to be a surgeon and consider all the surgical specialties early on than having your heart set on being a head and neck cancer surgeon from the age of 19.
Again, to use the boyfriend analogy, not many people who are determined to find and marry a blonde 6 foot welsh rugby player, 2 years older than them, with no baggage, minimal chest hair, nice feet and works as a vet in the country end up doing so (trust me on this one, I know the woman who wanted this and she is 38, lonely and miserable). So keep your options open and consider all types of surgery.
It also helps to have role models and mentors to guide and influence you. They don’t need to be told that they are your role model, there is no need to formalise the process. Mine have been almost entirely male, there have been about four that have massively influenced my professional and personal life for either a brief period (an amazing plastic surgeon who wrote plays and was an amateur actor) or the few that have been around for most of my adult life (the great leaders).
What most of mine have in common is a rich and varied life out with medicine; all are excellent surgeons and lead their teams well, they are well liked and respected and are exceptionally nice and clever people. These characteristics are not gender specific, as a group they probably are slightly more effusive than other male surgeons but they are all white, British, quintessential Royal College material men. There are of course a few women that have influenced me, one in particular that is about 5 years ahead of me has taught me a lot more than just how to operate and it has been interesting to watch her go from stage to stage and see the few mistakes she has made and the many things she has done right and continues to refine.
Find people you want to be like and ask them how they got there. That might be the workaholic, hugely productive university professor who spends every second at work and publishes endlessly. It might be the guy in the super flash suit whose patients love him and he works tirelessly for them. It might be the forgetful, kind hearted amazing surgeon who can teach almost anyone to do anything.
Above all else, realise that this is a journey where there is no final destination. You will always be learning, always trying to get better, always be teaching others and trying to get better at teaching others.
There is nothing I would rather do than my job, it is the greatest privilege and the most amazing challenge and it is super fun and makes me happy. Not many people can say that about their work, so find a role model that smiles on the way into the hospital and looks happy in theatre because that’s how you should want to feel too.