Nuanced sexism: reflections of a female surgery resident

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Nuanced sexism: reflections of a female surgery resident

By Arghavan Salles, 2011-12 Graduate Dissertation Fellow

by Arghavan Salles on Friday, June 29, 2012 - 8:30am

When do women first realize we are not supposed to be good at math and science? For me, it was during high school calculus class when my classmates begrudged me my position as the best student in the class. I was slow to catch on, though: many children learn the harmful stereotype about women’s supposed inferior math ability early on in their elementary school years.medical school photo

Even after I had this realization, I naively did not think the stereotype affected me. In college I majored in engineering. Of course I noticed that my classmates were mostly men, but I did not think much of it. I was even a little bit annoyed by organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers because their very existence made it seem as though women in engineering needed more support than their male colleagues. That, to me, was insulting.

I went on to medical school and decided to become a surgeon. In retrospect, it’s almost as though I was set on defying the stereotypes about women’s abilities, first in engineering, then in medicine, and finally in the medical specialty thought of as the least welcoming of women, surgery.

Rosalyn Yalow at her Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital, October 13, 1977, after learning she was one of three American doctors awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine that year.In many fields the leading thinkers go into academic careers in which they generate new knowledge through their research. In these positions, they have the responsibility of training the future leaders in their field. Over the past 25 years, women have increasingly accounted for a greater proportion of surgical trainees. However, they often do not choose to stay in academics. Indeed, despite one third of surgical trainees being women, only eight percent of full professors in surgery are women. Even fewer of these women go on to hold important leadership positions such as serving as department chairs: there are only three women chairs of departments of surgery in the United States. I carefully consider these stark facts when I think about whether to pursue an academic career.

...despite one third of surgical trainees being women, only eight percent of full professors in surgery are women... there are only three women chairs of departments of surgery in the United States.

A recent article published in the journal Academic Medicine attempts to account for the small number of women in top levels of surgery. The article argues that women face a stereotype that their ability is inferior to that of their male colleagues. The stereotype leads to a taxing dynamic: there’s pressure to perform at the highest level — with patient lives at stake — while constantly feeling like others doubt your ability. My research shows that when women believe others endorse this negative stereotype, our mental health deteriorates. Likewise, when we believe men are better surgeons than women, we experience physical health problems, such as gastrointestinal distress or low back pain.

Certainly there may be other explanations for these findings. Some might argue that women are less able to advance in academic medicine because they are less committed to their work than their male colleagues. However, my research has shown that women spend just as much time as men preparing for their daily work. They also perform similarly to men as judged by faculty members. It seems, then, that just as many women leave math majors despite having equal grades as their male colleagues, capable women in surgery leave the arena in which they can have the greatest impact on the future of the field.

In my career I eventually had to face the reality that women are not treated the same as men. Unlike the days depicted in “Mad Men,” when men were overtly sexist, today women face much more subtle challenges that can be difficult to recognize and counter due to their insidious nature. Ironically, many men who are explicitly supportive of women perpetuate this modern, nuanced sexism by making comments such as, “Oh, I didn’t know you would be interested in working on this project. I thought you would prefer to be with your family.”

Unfortunately, sexism continues to be a problem with very real consequences. Without acknowledging this reality, we impede progress. So, the next time you sit in a meeting where a man takes credit for a woman’s ideas or a woman does all the work on a project for which a man takes credit, think about what you can do to prevent this from happening to your mother, your sister or your daughter.


arghavan salllesArghavan Salles is a PhD student in the School of Education at Stanford University. She is also a general surgery resident at Stanford Hospital & Clinics.   She was a Graduate Dissertation Fellow with Stanford's Clayman Institute for Gender Research in 2011-12.