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  • Writer's pictureDavid Manes

Female Surgeon Discrimination: When the Patient Ask for the Real Doctor

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Female Surgeon Discrimination: When the Patient Ask for the Real Doctor

Studies illuminate that although science and medicine have taken great strides in health and care in the last hundred years, gender roles and stereotypes still guide society’s thoughts on who can be a surgeon. But this problem stretches past the borders of America because almost 70% of newly qualified women doctors from the United Kingdom expressed the opinion that surgery is not a welcoming profession for women.

“Surgery still remains very male dominated, and it does still appear as an old boys’ club and you’re very much an outsider as a woman.” Dr. Jyoti Shah, a surgeon, explained to BBC radio.

Society has come far. And yet, we still have far to go. After all, the first woman admitted to medical school was only accepted because everyone thought her application was simply a joke. In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell received her diploma from Geneva Medical College. Despite two hundred years passing since Elizabeth Blackwell made history, some people still treat women in medicine like a joke.

In today’s economy, women receive the short end of the stick. A woman is expected to earn a salary, care for the children, maintain the home, have the perfect body, and so much more. Despite the value that women routinely add to our daily lives, women still experience gender discrimination and unequal pay.

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The Multi-Tasking Surgeon-Wife-Mother

The career woman remains the child bearer and statistically still maintains the most responsibility within the house hold and family. More often than not, the woman alters her career path to accommodate these other responsibilities outside of her career, even when her job is more prestigious than her partner’s.

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“This is about saving lives and recruiting the best talent possible, regardless of gender, we want to create an environment that is appealing to everybody – we owe that to patients.” – Dr. Jyoti Shah

Women face gender discrimination that looks friendly on the surface but masks a more sarcastic barb. For example, one woman reported being told by a senior level individual that “you have to ask yourself why you’re doing medicine. Because you’d better not be taking up a spot in your class just to leave later and become a pretty little housewife and raise kids.” Although statistically, women are more likely to leave the medical field than male colleagues, the question should be, “How can the medical field be a better, safer, and more welcoming environment for women?”

The Ridiculous Choice Offered to Mom Surgeons: Good Mom or Good Surgeon

Men are never expected to choose between a career and fatherhood. In fact, men are encouraged to do both, but when it comes to women, the idea is that it’s an either or option. Double standards rule gender discrimination.

While most medical schools offer medical students the option to freeze the tenure track due to various reasons, not all schools give this option. One woman shared how she gave birth to two children within two years, and this slowed her academic and clinical productivity. Since her medical school lacked options for medical students with children, she had to leave the tenure track. Women bring talent and perspective to the health care system that is irreplaceable.

 “A woman could either be a good mom, good wife or good surgeon – pick one.” – an attending surgeon.

The male-dominated surgery field fails to recognize the gender hierarchy. Since this gender discrimination benefits the men in the system, they passively allow it to continue. Women should not be told to choose between their family or their career.

“Manage your expectations…no one can have it all these days, in any profession, not just medicine.” Dr. Lisa Lattanza shared with her audience. “Your kids are not going to hate you for what you do for a living.”

two women, one arm around the other

Women surgeons are quick to point out that integrating a family life with a surgeon career is difficult. However, if surgery is a woman’s passion, she should pursue it. No life balance is perfect, and something will always need to give, whether it’s work, family, or another hobby. This is a fact of every demanding career. Meanwhile, women must continue to manage the social pressures placed on them to not only work but care for the family. This is not an either or situation. Choosing to be a female surgeon does not negate the ability to be a good mom, wife, or whatever else desired to be.

Women surgeons who experience severe gender discrimination for being a mom or for caring for a family shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to an employment attorney.

Women in Surgery: What The Numbers Show

The numbers reveal a horrifying imbalance within the realm of surgery when it comes to gender equality in leadership positions. Some might argue that the inequality stems from a lack of qualified women or that women are dropping out to be mothers. But, regardless of that fact, very few women reach the high levels of leadership in surgery.

female surgeon looks out window

For the majority of surgeon positions in education, women surgeons remain as assistant professors or instructors. One study examined data from a period of 12 years within the major US academic medical institutions. Women surgeons only served as 9.2% of chairs, 14.7% of full professors, and 9.3% of deans. Finally, another study revealed that only 3 women out of 270 female general surgeons held the chair position in their department.

The United Kingdom shows similar reports. Of 315 neurosurgeons with only 25 being female, the 15 full professor positions were held by men. Furthermore, two different medical series guessed that women won’t reach 50% of the full professorships until 2096 or 2136. Meanwhile, in the USA, the American Association of Neurological Surgery shared that out of 287 female neurosurgeons only 1 holds the role of chairman.

One hundred and seventy years after Elizabeth Blackwell entered medical school, only 18 women lead surgical departments throughout the United States and Canada. For only four to five generations, that’s pretty good. But it should not be where the momentum stops.

The statistics illuminate a problem within the field of surgery. What’s keeping women from leadership positions within surgery? How is subtle gender discrimination ruining opportunities for female surgeons?

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Gender Discrimination: The Monster under the Bed

Monsters under the bed plague the sleep of children, and parents assure their children that the monster is not real. For women in surgery, their fear of the monster of gender discrimination plaguing their career is often discounted and dismissed. While children can look under the bed to see that there is no monster, a woman surgeon who looks will often come face to face with gender discrimination.

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In a survey conducted in 2000, over half of the women surgeons working as professors reported gender discrimination and sexual harassment. Meanwhile, their male coworkers expressed the belief that these disparities did not exist in the medical institutions. Over all, these studies discovered that women surgeon professors earned less, received promotions much more slowly, and scored lower in the peer-review process than male peers.

So while society is just beginning to accept the widespread issue of gender discrimination throughout every industry, women still face harassment and silence for speaking up against these daily reminders of their inequality in the field of surgery. To speak up often means being targeted for more harassment. And women surgeons fear losing certain chances in their career by reporting sexual harassment or discrimination.

In situations like this, an employment lawyer helps to craft a legal strategy that will offer solutions to employment discrimination and sexual harassment.

The Effects of a Work Environment on Female Surgeons

“That culture is like the air we breathe or the water that fish swim in. It has the potential, for better or worse, to affect everybody in the same way.” Dr. Linda H. Pololi, a senior scientist at Brandeis University, recognizes that the culture within the work environment influences surgeons and patients alike. Of course, half of the problem is recognizing that the problem exists.

sad female medical professional

Women often see the problem, but it’s harder to get men to see the problem. After all, a female surgeon routinely is referred to as “sister” or “nurse” by patients, and sometimes coworkers refer to women surgeons as “young girls” or “nurses.” Although not innately wrong, these terms are disrespectful of the woman’s experience and knowledge.

“The battle is everywhere…I’m consigned to the nurses’ locker room and our conditions there are much inferior to male counterparts.  Equipment is sized for male hands, male heights.  Golf is the second office—I hate golf.  Sexism, racism, materialism prevail.” – an anonymous female surgeon, “Engendered Surgery: Women Surgeons Reveal Their Experiences.”

The organizational culture and accepted norms of behavior demoralize not only women but men as well. The structure of an organization and the level of disrespect permitted reveals the values of medical centers. In a study published by The Journal of General Internal Medicine, researchers supervised 20-minute questionnaires to over 2,000 faculty members. The study asked whether or not their work energized them, whether they felt ignored, or if they felt pressure to compromise their values.

Overall, the study revealed similar results as previous studies about the difference between women and men in their feelings about employment discrimination, marginalization, and solutions to ongoing discrimination problems. Women also expressed distrust in their employers to correct these problems. However, most surprising, men and women voiced concerns over a lack of support from their employers for their work.

How Sexual Harassment Degrades The Female Surgeon’s Work Environment

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Female surgeons are expected to handle verbal abuse because it’s a part of the job. Women who speak up against the abuse face intensified harassment and more violations of personal privacy. One woman shared that when she complained against a resident who continually harassed nurses and female surgeons that he called her at home to threaten her.

Women surgeons who are training for specific specializations fear speaking up about sexual harassment and losing a chance at good placement in their chosen field. Women combat the inappropriate comments and touches by trying to avoid the supervising doctor who does these things. Some within the field might see this as a way to weed out the weak students, shuffling them to other, less competitive fields.

Unfortunately, sexual harassment is not contained to overseeing doctors and coworkers, but female surgeons experience inappropriate comments from patients as well. This lack of respect for women surgeons incubates a hostile work environment.

Preprogrammed for Bias: The Differences Between Men and Women Surgeons

Men and women surgeons interact with the world, their jobs, and their patients differently. Not all differences are bad. Although discrimination based on gender challenges employment equality, the differences of gender should be acknowledged in the medical field. For example, men and women communicate differently. Where men focus on independence, women develop relationships. Their communication style reflect these values.

The Effect of Unconscious Bias

More recently, the term “unconscious bias” has raised to the surface of employment discrimination situations. While researchers believe that bias helped our earliest ancestors to survive harsh climates and deathly feuds, bias today breeds inequality. The most obvious symptoms of unconscious bias can be recognized in the use of language.

professional business woman staring

For example, Dr. Files and Dr. Mayer noticed that more often than not male hosts at medical events would introduce female doctors without their correct formal title. Their study began informally, but then, they wanted to see the information empirically. They reviewed 321 introductions done at Arizona and Minnesota Mayo Clinics and discovered that male introducers used the formal title with male doctors 72.4 percent of the time while only using the correct title with women 49.2 percent of the time.

Although some might say this isn’t that big of a deal, consider that formal titles are a way to show respect. Parents prompt children to respectfully address authorities older than themselves. In the same way, soldier address their superiors with the correct title. Language reflects the level of respect for another individual.

 “Subtle, yet pervasive practices, reinforcing the perception that women are of lower status than men, can negatively impact a woman’s career trajectory and her satisfaction with her career even if they are unintentional,” Dr. Files and Dr. Mayer write,  “Unequal naming practices may amplify the issues of isolation, marginalization, and professional discomfiture expressed by women faculty in academic medicine.”

For the most part, unconscious bias isn’t malicious. However, unconscious bias affects doctors and patients alike. Doctors diagnose patients in part with the use of their unconscious bias. Since some diseases are more common in men than in women or vice versa, a doctor might not recognize the symptoms of a certain disease in a patient who doesn’t fit the normal demographic for the disease. Having male and female doctors helps to fight this problem. A diverse society requires diverse medical surgeons.

How To Deal with Female Surgeon Discrimination

For over 200 years, women have dealt with stereotypes and societal expectations to gain a foot in the door of the medical industry. From being the only woman in the classroom to handling the patient refusal of care due to a female doctor, it’s been a long and difficult journey. Today, few women hold a place in surgery.

Studies ask why. Meanwhile, women surgeons navigate sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and an unwelcoming organizational structure. No wonder few women rise to leadership roles within the medical profession.

Steps to Fighting Female Surgeon Discrimination

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1. Become the best surgeon you can be.

A surgeon who demonstrates intelligence and diligence will receive notice, no matter what gender. Be the best.

2. Seek a mentor.

Choose a mentor, man or woman, who can help you grow as a person and surgeon. He or she can benefit your career by advocating for you.

3. Introduce yourself with your formal title.

Rather than dealing with the assumptions of patients or others, introduce yourself with your formal title. But, then, you can tell your patients to call you by your first name if you are comfortable with that.

4. Know how to handle discrimination.

Most organizations offer a specific way to handle discrimination within their structure, whether contacting the HR department or speaking with a supervisor.

5. Rise to leadership positions.

Women surgeons in leadership help to change the face of the current medical profession.

6. Hire a lawyer.

No matter what type of discrimination you may be facing, a lawyer recognizes your legal options and guides you through the process to fight for your rights under the law.

If you are a female surgeon and have experienced gender discrimination of any type, contact a discrimination attorney now to hear your legal options.

Chat with a discrimination attorney: (412) 626-5626 or

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