In today’s world, more and more females are entering the medical field. Thus, it should be no big surprise that the number of female surgeons has also increased alongside this general trend, becoming more visible and prominent in the world of surgery. Despite this, there are still some struggles that apply to these female surgeons more strongly than as compared to their male counterparts.

More female physicians, but males still dominate the surgical field

The total number of female physicians increased by 24% between 2010 and 2014, while there was only an increase of 11% in the number of males during the same period. The gender distribution of medical students was about 1:1 in ratio. However, 33% of male medical students chose general surgery as their specialty upon graduation, while only 14% of the female graduates opted for this field.

As a medical specialty, surgery is described to require exceptional physical demands. More significantly, surgery has traditionally been a male-dominated field, as the common view is that this specialty affects the female surgeons' careers and family relationships to a greater degree than their male counterparts. In particular, female surgeons who also play the role of a mother may find it hard to give their best in both their careers and their family life, leading to a greater amount of guilt and feelings of inadequacy. Female surgeons also expressed having to face more pressure and discrimination in their workplace, such as patients mistaking them for nurses, or their male colleagues off-handedly throwing discriminatory remarks at them.

The masculine image in the world of surgery

A common perception is that the surgeon should not show much of their emotions, which is perceived as a sign of weakness. This is a struggle that female surgeons face more often, and several female surgical residents expressed their need to project a strong image in face of such norms in a male-dominated medical specialty. For example, pregnant residents work until they are due to deliver to prove that they are capable to continue despite their pregnancy, and are not a burden to their male colleagues.

Some female surgeons tried to adopt a more masculine demeanor in order to fit in with the traditional image of a surgeon, but this did not seem to have much of an effect. A study by Dusch et al. looked into how to maximize a patient’s trust to foster the optimal surgeon-patient relationship, and results showed that patients have no preference of male over female surgeons and vice versa. If so, instead of becoming “one of the guys”, the female surgeon could perhaps be herself and channel her femininity towards bringing about a positive results in healthcare.

Notable female surgeons in history

Despite being a traditionally male-dominated field, several female surgeons have left their marks in history. For one, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was the first female surgeon employed in the U.S. Army. In 1862, when she served in the army, she crossed battle lines and also treated civilians. She would enter enemy territory to attend to the victims, and received the Medal of Honor for her dedication and bravery. 

Another notable surgeon is Margaret Ann Bulkley. More famously known as Dr. James Miranda Stuart Barry, he was born a female, but chose to live as a man so that he could be accepted into the medical school and later practice as a surgeon. He rose through the ranks and became the Inspector General, overseeing the military’s hospitals. 

Closer to home, Dr. Susan Lim, a Singaporean surgeon, successfully headed Singapore’s first liver transport in 1990. She is also part of the Global Advisory Council of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, and started a biotechnology company called Stem Cell Technologies in 2003.

Be it work-life balance problems, demands of the surgical practice, other intangible pressure or a subtly discriminatory atmosphere, female surgeons have their own shares of struggles in advancing their careers. However, more females are making a stand in the world of surgery that is traditionally dominated by males, and are slowly but surely paving a way to achieve a more gender-neutral medical specialty. MIMS

Read more:
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