In early January, three second-year medical students at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston launched a new organization and lecture series titled “Women in Surgery.” The aim was to increase the visibility of women surgeons among preclinical first- and second-year medical students.
Entering medical school, I had little knowledge about the realities of medicine and was naive about the gender disparity in the field. Aware of the great strides recently made by women physicians, I anxiously wondered how “gender” would affect me. Over the course of my first year of medical school, I thought the gender issue would fade away, but it only intensified—especially as I became increasingly interested in surgery. Thankfully, I had a phenomenal summer with a wonderful mentor, and after shadowing and scrubbing in with a couple of great women surgeons, I came to realize that my worries had been for naught.
Unfortunately, my story is the exception, not the rule. Many female medical students never have the opportunity to challenge their doubts. Instead, they rely on pre-existing notions of medical specialties to decide their future. These notions, which may or may not be outdated, encompass factors that range from schedule flexibility to length of training, from visibility of women mentors to colleague likeability. As a result, surgery—traditionally a male-dominated field—is in many ways hit the hardest. This is a pity, since no medical specialty, least of all surgery, can afford to lose potential members.
Fortunate in my own experience, I could not in good conscience walk away from these issues, which plagued my current and future colleagues. I recruited two friends, Madison Griffin and Kathy Zhang-Rutledge, and we resolved to eliminate the disconnect between doubt and reality.
Medical students enter their clinical rotations with preconceived ideas of each specialty. Most students during their preclinical years have minimal exposure to surgeons (and practically no exposure at all to women surgeons) and are at risk for prematurely closing their minds off to surgery. Thus, we figured that the best action to take was to bring women surgeons directly to preclinical students. I began by contacting Dr. Lillian Kao. One email turned into many, and before long, Drs. Rosemary Kozar and Stacey Moore-Olufemi had jumped aboard. The six of us met up and brainstormed the best ways to increase the exposure of women surgeons among medical students.
A few weeks after the meeting, we launched a lecture series to cover a range of pertinent topics, such as professional involvement, surgical research, practice settings, work-life balance, and mentorship. Each lecture was given by a woman surgeon from a different surgical specialty and thus served the dual purpose of educating students on topics relevant to surgery and increasing the visibility of women surgeons to an audience composed largely of preclinical students. The goal of the Women in Surgery lecture series has been to help students make informed choices about their future—regardless of whether or not they ultimately choose to pursue surgery.
All five of our themed lectures have been a success, with audiences far larger than we originally anticipated. We plan on rounding out our lecture series with two Q&A panels—one composed of female surgical attendings from additional specialties and practice settings that were not covered by the themed lectures, and another composed of female surgical residents and fourth-year medical students who matched into a surgery residency program.
The encouragement Kathy, Madison, and I received from the faculty has been amazing. Dr. Kozar sponsored a dozen students to the Association of Women Surgeons (AWS) and ordered AWS pocket mentors for all of our lecture attendees. Dr. Moore-Olufemi welcomed us warmly into her home, where she hosted a fully catered student-faculty mixer. Dr. Kao provided lunch for two of our lectures. The enthusiasm that the faculty has shown toward our goal has been resounding and heartwarming. The most startling discovery has been how important of an issue gender disparity remains for the women at the faculty level of our school. What started as an educational lecture series for medical students has turned into a platform from which women faculty members also can seek encouragement.
We have begun circulating a mentor list among the surgeons in the Texas Medical Center. If you are interested in joining our list, please take two to three minutes to fill out our mentor form. The form is not limited to surgeons only in the Greater Houston Area. We encourage both men and women surgeons in support of aspiring women surgeons to apply. We also have our very own website, with many thanks to Kathy.
With so much goodwill on our side, we have had a fantastic start and have made tremendous progress in just two short months. However, there is still much that we hope to accomplish for the future, such as getting our own domain for our website, growing our mentor list, and collaborating with Baylor so that the Women in Surgery initiative becomes a joint program. We also plan on following the long-term impact of our lecture series on medical students by seeing if the number of women applying for surgical residencies increases.
Ultimately, our lecture series is a self-defeating organization. I hope that gender disparity will one day no longer stand as an obstacle to aspiring women surgeons. That day is coming, but until then, ideas for how to improve our lecture series are welcome and encouraged. Please email all ideas and questions to Jane Zhao.