Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner
Reasons women should not pursue surgery discredited
Before I even started medical school, I knew I wanted to be a surgeon. However—before I even started medical school—I had multiple people tell me all the reasons why I should not become a surgeon. Their lists were exhaustive: long hours, lack of social life, lack of family life, loss of my childbearing years, conflicts with males who did not want females breaking into their field, etc. When questioned further on whether these attributes were present in all medical specialties (and in completely different professions), no one could back up their prior statement. Throughout medical school, through residency interviews, and throughout residency, there have still been people who have discouraged me from pursuing my dream career. But the further along in my career I get, the stronger the support has become from my family, my husband, my attendings, and my fellow residents. The reasons not to become a surgeon ceased to matter many years ago, drowned out by all the reasons I would become one.
Let me be very clear. I am in no way saying that being a surgical resident or becoming a surgeon is an easy path to take. There will be obstacles. There will be late nights spent at the hospital or at your kitchen table studying. There will be arguments with your partner and family members over why you cannot attend an event or why Christmas needs to be held a week early. There will be the gut-wrenching decision over whether to have a child during medical school, residency, or wait until you are a fellow or staff. There will be men (and women) who will judge your problem solving and operative abilities to a different standard than your male peers. But all of those things are ok. Because as long as you love what you do, you can work through all of it.
Let’s break it down by argument. Long hours. Nearly every medical specialty, particularly during residency, has a massive time commitment. I have friends in pediatrics, family medicine, internal medicine, surgery subspecialties, and radiology. At times, all of their schedules are insane. Around the time of the In-Training exams, everyone morphs back into medical students—medical students who also happen to work 80 hours per week. Whether we want to admit it or not, our jobs take up a large volume of time and we spend more time at work than at home, regardless of specialty. So if the time commitment in surgery concerns you, recognize that surgery is not unique in the time burden it carries.
Next up: lack of social and family life. This is what you make of it. If you want to see your friends and family in the time you have off work, you will see your friends and family in the time you have off work. You will quickly learn whether your priority is to meet friends out for a drink, spend time with your partner, or lay around and do absolutely nothing at all when you have some precious “free time.” The majority of programs provide at least three weeks of paid vacation per year, so traveling is possible. There are also numerous adjuncts to assist in connecting with your family and friends. There’s FaceTime and Skype for those whose friends and family aren’t within driving distance.
There are literally coffee shops within hospitals that you can meet your spouse or friends at when you have a few free minutes. Just looking at my Facebook feed makes this argument null, as I see many of my surgical colleagues posting the fun things they are doing in their spare time. Remember also that you will be garnering new friendships with fellow residents and hospital staff as well. The support you will receive from people who understand your situation can be very comforting, and you may be surprised by the strength of the bonds you develop.
Loss of childbearing years. This one is a little harder to argue with. However you slice it, unless you are a nontraditional medical student, you are going to spend the bulk of your childbearing years in training. Again, this is mostly regardless of specialty. However, I will admit that there still lingers a stigma associated with a pregnant surgical resident. That being said, many surgical residencies have recognized that with the rise in female medical students come more highly qualified female graduates. Program directors are not stupid, they know that if they want the best, they are going to have to take both male and female applicants. The governing bodies of many residencies have realized this as well and have mandated that FMLA be honored for residents. For example, the American Board of Surgery (which governs the General Surgery residency programs in combination with the ACGME) allows residents to work 48 weeks per year averaged over the first three and last two years of residency. Residents taking leaves of absence for medical reasons (including maternity leave) are allowed an additional two weeks off in each of the three and two year periods. And that’s only if you are planning on graduating on time. If you want to take the full FMLA 12 week period (though part of it will likely be unpaid and without coverage of insurance premiums, like most jobs), it is allowable. I personally took five weeks off after having my daughter. Was it enough time? Probably not. But it was my choice to return to work when I did. I never received any pressure from my program to return early. In fact, everyone was incredibly supportive. Is it hard to leave my daughter every day? Immensely. But I truly enjoy the career I have chosen, and would not change it for anything. Any time I am on a long call shift and longing to see her, I remind myself that my daughter has a mother who is satisfied with her work life and, thus, a happier person at home. I also remind myself that the career I chose will someday show my daughter (and many other people’s daughters) that women are just as capable as men of achieving what they aspire to.
Finally, we reach the argument that surgery isn’t worth it because there will be conflicts with men who do not want a woman breaking into their field. In this case and at this time, I will simply direct you to the nearest news outlet, which is likely reporting on this very topic in an entirely unrelated career field. Very recently, the harassment and discrimination that has interfered with women climbing the career ladder for decades has come into the spotlight, and I for one am hopeful that we will see real change come of it. In the field of surgery, movements have recently been sparked as well, including the New Yorker cover challenge (featuring all-female surgical teams) and #ILookLikeASurgeon. There are also multiple organizations medical students, residents, fellows, and attending physicians can join which support and promote women in surgical specialties. And please, never discount the female (and male) role models and mentors at your own institution. The culture of surgery (and our country at large) is changing.
So, if you are thinking about surgery, but struggling with all the reasons that you should not do it, ask yourself one question. It is a question that is not gender specific, which makes it all the more applicable. Do you think you could be happy doing anything other than surgery? If the honest answer to that question is no, then never let the fears and misgivings of others stand in the way of pursuing something you truly love.
Kara Hessel is a 4th year resident in Kansas City. She enjoys spending time with her family, reading novels, attending musicals/plays/concerts, and relaxing.