I am lucky enough, from time to time, to be invited to speak to young women who want to be surgeons when they “grow up.” I always have a hard time striking a balance between what I should share that is positive and inspirational and what I should share that is a little harsh and uncomfortable. Once, I turned to my friends and colleagues on Facebook on what they thought about my topic for a women in surgery talk which was on how to have it all. One of my more opinionated friends summed it up pretty well: “I’d like to find the bitch who has ‘it all’ and slap her!”
I love going to these events, I really do. I want to inspire students and junior doctors, whether they be male or female, to a career in surgery. But I also want to leave them with a positive yet realistic message about what this game is about. To follow on from my “So you want to be a surgeon?” post, here is my advice to the lovely ladies who want to heal with steel.
1. Stop thinking you can have it all. Or at least redefine what “it all” is to you and to the significant people in your life. I still don’t know some of the things I want in my life. Women in careers are still the child bearers and still account for more responsibility with regards to household chores and raising children. Women are more likely to change specialties in order to account for these extra-curricular activities, even if they have the more prestigious career. My mother worked very little when I was growing up, she picked my brother and I up from school and was there during holidays. I know that if I have kids, that will not be their reality.
I have had to think about what all of the professional and personal goals will look like. I have worked out what is super important, what is less so and what I will go to the pearly gates being comfortable with. Work out what your needs are and adjust accordingly.
2. Don’t be a bitch but be prepared to be called one. As I’ve made clear in my previous posts, I don’t much rate bullying and being a pratt for the fun of it. But medicine and surgery is serious business, and you need to be doing your best. It’s OK to be firm but fair, especially when someone’s safety is on the line. Unfortunately, in the process, you will be probably be called a whole bunch of less than ideal names like a bitch, bossy, domineering, and so on. I am proud to get the best from people, and I am conscious to be the best human I can to do that. Doesn’t make me a bitch. That being said, try not to be one. Everyone loves to tear down the nasty, grumpy woman. Don’t give them a reason to. Create a workplace you want to work in, you’re proud to be a part of and gives the best to the patients.
3. Be a girly girl, be a tomboy, just be yourself. I think I’m a weird hybrid and that my folks got a son and half. When I was little, I used to ride BMX bikes (after seeing Nicole Kidman in BMX Bandits) in kitten heels and a twin set. And I could beat up the boys. I think I still am a hybrid! Most importantly, I am what I am. I am not going to give up heels and makeup to be a surgeon; I certainly won’t stop reading Vogue! It’s what makes me, me. I know that there is a stereotype that women surgeons need to be more masculine than the blokes, but that is just not a great way of thinking. Be who you are, it’s more interesting and much easier. You’ll have enough on your plate already!
4. Get a mentor and, no, it doesn’t have to be a woman. My mentors have been all men. They’ve taught me about surgery, life and rugby. I am learning about rugby begrudgingly though. The important thing is not their gender but their ability to support you and guide you. Trumps chromosomes any day of the week.
5. Get some hobbies and friends who aren’t doctors. I think this is so important for women in surgery. Surgery can be all consuming, and it’s so important to be able to talk about something else. This has the dual benefits of keeping your sanity and helping you be a well-rounded person. Work life balance is so important to us all and surgery-free time means your surgery time is so much more rewarding and successful.
6. Think about how you are going to introduce yourself to patients. I am not a middle-aged man and, therefore, I am often confused for something other than a doctor – physio, nurse, device rep come up quite commonly! I am finding now that the best way around this is to say, “Hello, I’m Dr Nikki Stamp.” But once I’ve got that sorted, I’m happier to be called by my first name. Don’t want to be too formal.
7. There is no good time for small people. I feel a bit of an impostor dishing out advice on this one, as I don’t have kids. But, there is not a universally accepted good time. Before, during or after training will not be easy. My friends and colleagues (and their families) have survived by just doing it and being in a supportive environment with help as they need it.
8. Choose your battles. Yes, sexism. It’s there in varying degrees. My philosophy has always been to choose what you’re going to jump up and down about. I am not going to advocate accepting outright discrimination, but I’ve sometimes thought that if I get upset at every off joke told in theatre, I’d be too busy being outraged to do any work. Bullying and harassment are at the forefront of our minds right now (as it should be), and if you do experience something seriously upsetting, there are processes in place. Hopefully, as we speak, these processes are going to be improved and refined to serve those who need them best.
9. Wear compression tights or stockings in operating room. Practical tip. We ladies seem to be more prone to broken veins from the constant standing. Not only that, but if I forget my tights, I can’t fit into my heels at the end of the day. Thanks to the scrub nurses for drumming this one into me! I wear 2XU tights, and there are loads of small businesses selling super funky compression socks.
10. Your physical fitness is important so don’t neglect it. I am not perfect in this arena. I would dearly love to run more than I do. Surgery is a physical job and being strong, and fit makes it so much easier. It’s not cool to run to a cardiac arrest and look like you need a resuscitation team of your own. I find my back and legs hurt so much less when I’m fitter. Exercise is also good for your mental health and surgery can be very good at testing that. Do something that makes you feel good. I can highly recommend running, weight training for strength on your feet and yoga for the strength, stretching your tired body and some serious zen.
Bonus tip number 11. Go for it girls!
Nikki Stamp is a cardiothoracic surgeon in Australia who blogs at Advice for and from the heart.
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