How can women surgeons change the dominant culture and not alienate the majority?


Recently, I read this great article from Dr. Chethan Sathya, a male surgeon who commented on how women surgeons in this day and age are still treated as second class surgeons. There has been much good commentary and discussion on the topic, particularly on Twitter. But almost as if on cue, a different male surgeon chimed in with the following comment:

I’m 100% sure u will prefer a male surgeon for ur own surgery. As we all know women are weak in dealing with stress and strain of difficult situations, giving them a big bleeder will make them run away, it’s inbuilt in them.

Thank goodness I just completed a course in meditation, as this type of misogynistic vitriol is sure to get blood boiling, but instead for me, my first instinct was to burst out laughing. It’s probably better for my blood pressure. However, it got me thinking — and writing.

We can easily argue how his points are grossly inaccurate, if not just plain offensive. It was such an inflammatory comment that people wondered if the poster was even real, or just a troll looking for followers on Twitter. Sometimes, words can be so ugly, that most normal people have a hard time believing it could come from a real human because it seems so … inhumane.

Only briefly, let’s talk about what’s so wrong with this. I’m not going to generalize and say that women are better surgeons, but the fact that there are a few studies attesting to it, I’d argue that we are equal. We’re not weak. And stress and strain? Bring it on.

Some of the more hilarious comments about women not being able to handle big bleeders involve possessing (it’s inbuilt, by the way) a uterus, and as such, having to see and deal with more blood on a personal basis than any man would! But in all seriousness, one time in the OR, I found myself forearm deep in someone’s shoulder, pinching the undetected axillary artery tear in a 97 year old with a proximal humerus fracture (yes, I called vascular, yes we did pre-op studies — and yes, this tear was undetected as it was tamponaded off), while the vascular/cardiothoracic surgeon operating next door was trying to get off bypass so he could come over to repair or graft it. If I panicked, if I so much as let go — this man would be dead faster than you can say “misogynistic tweet from orthopedic surgeon in Pakistan.” So, no, I didn’t run away, and I know many, many women colleagues who handle these and more stressful situations with grace and collected calm.

And what are the broader implications of these attitudes, coming from a surgeon? Is a female patient in the eyes of this surgeon, going to be truly cared for as an equal to her male counterparts? Doubtful.

Sure, in orthopedic surgery, the concept of women as surgeons was once considered radical, but it is much much less so now. Despite that, we are still only 6 percent female at this time. Comments like this have the potential to harden women — to turn women into “man-haters,” but I challenge those teetering there to reconsider.

Following the sharing of that comment above, I was lifted by the words of both my male and female colleagues who spoke out against this narrative. #HeForShe is a thing (a good one), and it’s vital to forward progress in my field — or any, for that matter. It brings to mind the idea of “tempered radicalism,” as discussed by Debra Meyerson in her book of the same name, and by Adam Grant in Originals.

How do we as women surgeons walk the tightrope of being a part of the dominant culture, while working to change the system and simultaneously not alienating those who are part of the majority? We can’t generalize anger toward the majority from which the misogynistic commenter comes. #MenAsAllies is so crucial here, because if this was a comment made in your group practice or hospital or academic department, and it’s happening, say, in the men’s locker room, it doesn’t matter how strong or vocal women are, our strength is lost without the men who are willing to stand up and speak in those situations.

Nancy Yen Shipley is an orthopedic surgeon and can be reached at her self-titled site, NancyMD, and on Twitter @_nancymd and Instagram @_nancymd.

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