It is undeniable that the #MeToo movement has forever altered how we think about gender. The medical field, and particularly male-dominated specialties like surgery, has found itself in the spotlight with eye catching headlines such as “#MeToo in medicine: Women, harassed in hospitals and operating rooms, await reckoning”.1 Prior to the #MeToo movement, I had already begun to reflect upon the complex relationship I’ve had with my gender as an academic transplant surgeon over the past several decades of training and practice. On my first day of medical school, as I was riding high on the pure adrenaline of the challenge that was ahead, I was brought abruptly crashing down when one of my male classmates loudly announced to our group “Oh, so you’re the token female who took my MSTP spot”. I was completely mortified. Until that moment in time, I had naively thought that no one would look at my qualifications and for a moment think my appointment was not based on merit. Perhaps I should go back and thank him now, for that interaction was like pouring jet fuel on the fire I already had burning to be the best. But that same interaction also led years of subconsciously trying to prove I was “tougher” than my male counterparts. At my interview for the general surgery residency that I ultimately ranked as my first choice, the chair did not start out not by asking me about my PhD thesis work, publications, or academic transcript. Rather, he wished to know if I was married or had a fiancée and “Do you plan on having children during your residency years?”. He subsequently shared with me that two senior female residents had just been out for maternity leave, and that had “really messed up” the resident call schedule coverage. Instead of being offended, I doubled down to sell him on my work ethic and how I would be the best resident in his program if I matched. On my first day of residency, the same chair met with the incoming categorical, subspecialty, and preliminary surgical interns. There were probably 6 women out of the 30 or so collective surgical intern class. As he concluded his remarks, he then began to call us each by name to step forward and receive the program necktie that was to be worn throughout our residency for Grand Rounds and M&M Conferences. As the first few of my male counterparts went forward to collect their tie, I looked around the room trying to catch the eye of the other women to see what the heck we were supposed to do when he called our names. They all looked as perplexed as I was. I was the first woman to be called. I stepped forward and he handed my tie and shook my hand without missing a beat. I stammered out a “Thank-you, Sir” and took my seat again. Throughout residency, one of my stellar senior residents managed (I still don’t know how she did it) to be impeccably dressed every day, including high heels and full makeup, even post-call. I honestly could not fathom why she would want to draw attention to her gender. During this time, I was also confused by the need for the Association of Women Surgeons (AWS). Weren’t we all just surgeons? Why this need to try and highlight what was clearly a “handicap”? I had definitely bought into the mantra that the only way to be a successful academic surgeon was to blend in and be as “masculine” as my male peers.
But these anecdotes are not the point of this post….what I really want to emphasize is that for each one of these events, I have hundreds of examples of when I had amazing support, mentorship, and friendship from my male colleagues. From my mentors in transplant surgery who saw my potential in their field even before I did, to my first division chief who cried tears of joy with me upon learning of both of my pregnancies (at least I think they were tears of joy), I have forged partnerships built on mutual respect that continue to stand the test of time.
I’ve also seen my own views on gender in surgery dramatically changed with the passage of time. I’m now a proud card-carrying member of the AWS. I unapologetically took my full 12-weeks maternity leave for each of my children. And by the end of my residency, the incoming female interns received program scarves in lieu of a necktie from the new department chair. Of course, that creates an entirely new dilemma….just how are you supposed to wear said scarf?
Joking aside, there remains work to be done by all of us in surgery. Implicit biases continue to keep the glass ceiling from being fully dissembled. I had well intentioned male faculty members tell me that “your priorities will change once you have children”. I never once heard this voiced to any of my male counterparts having their first child. It saddens me that the majority of the stories receiving press coverage have focused on situations in which female surgeons have suffered sexual harassment, discrimination, or even abuse. This should never happen to anyone, and we must continue to work to empower all employees to feel safe to report abuse. However, women surgeons must be equally vocal in talking about our far more voluminous positive surgical mentors and experiences. Finally, all of us in academic surgery need to strive for a work environment where there is better work-life balance for both male and female surgeons.