BALTIMORE – Most male surgeons welcome and support their female colleagues in the workplace, but a survey of male surgeons reports that bias against women in surgery persists, and may be even more acute among younger surgeons, according to a presentation at the annual meeting of the Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons.
“Is there a bias against women in surgery?” asked Michalina Jadick, who presented the results on behalf of AdventHealth Hospital Tampa. “Yes, there is, and understanding this problem is imperative when learning how to fix it.”
A freshman at Boston University who conducted the survey of male surgeons as part of a mentoring program for young women at AdventHealth, Ms. Jadick reported on results of an online survey completed by 190 male surgeons. She noted that, while women represent more than 50% of medical school students, they constitute only 19% of general surgeons in the United States. “Especially in the face of a projected shortage of practicing surgeons, it is more important now than ever to investigate, understand, and work to eliminate the barriers encountered by this large and unique talent pool,” she said.
The anonymous survey was extensive, including 70 five-point Likert-scale questions and 63 multiple choice and binary answers. Regarding the male surgeons who completed the survey, 84% were attendings with more than 5 years of experience, and 8% had less than 5 years in surgery. The remainder were residents, fellows and interns.
When asked if women are as capable as their male counterparts, 80% agreed, with the remainder split between “disagree” or “no opinion.”
“Although this is very small in comparison, that’s actually pretty significant,” Ms. Jadick said of the 10% who disagreed.
When asked if women make good surgeons, 67% agreed, 10% disagreed, and 23% selected neither. “We found that older male surgeons were more likely to believe women make successful surgeons, as opposed to younger male doctors,” Ms. Jadick said. She called this finding “surprising” because younger doctors are expected to have more progressive ideas. “However, this response seems to indicate otherwise, and that’s an important part of the conversation.”
When asked if women have the same advancement opportunities as men, 75% agreed and 9% disagreed. When the question was flipped – that is, if men have more opportunities than women – 32% agreed and 43% disagreed. Half of responders concurred that women are discouraged from entering surgery because program directors question their ability to complete surgical training, yet 95% agreed that men and women residents receive equal training. “This is especially a problem,” Ms. Jadick said of the latter finding.
The survey also found wide disparities in how male surgeons feel about family roles. A high percentage – 80% – agreed that a woman can be both a good surgeon and a good parent. But an even higher percentage – 96% – said a man could be good in both roles. “When looking at the disagreement to these statements, 13% said it is not possible for a woman to be both a good surgeon and a good parent, while not one single male respondent said the same for men,” Ms. Jadick said. Of the men surveyed, 84% agreed that female surgeons are under greater pressure than men to balance work and family life.
Exploring the family issue even deeper, 46% of the respondents said that having children adversely affects a female surgeon professionally, whereas only 9% said the same of men. Conversely, 31% said children do not affect a female surgeon’s career, but 81% said children do not affect a male surgeon’s career.
“Clearly the topic of family obligations is a huge issue in the context of gender discrimination against women in surgery, and this is the case even though many have indicated that women and men have similar commitment to families outside of work,” Ms. Jadick said. “This has proven to be a big part of the issue in the past and likely moving forward as well. That’s why it’s of paramount importance for us to take this into consideration and understand that it’s happening.”
When asked about working with women in the operating room, 20% of male respondents agreed that women surgeons are aggressive coworkers, and 19% said that it’s easier to work with male colleagues. This attitude may be a function of the stereotype of women being deferential to leadership rather than assuming it, she said.
When asked frankly if discrimination exists in surgery today, 43% answered “yes” – but 57% said “no” or “unsure.”
“This finding clearly portrays the problem does persist in surgery, and therefore, it’s very important for [male] surgeons in particular to remain aware of that problem and actively work to eliminate that disparity within that work environment,” Ms. Jadick said.
However, the 57% who said discrimination is not a problem is more unsettling, she said. “That’s incredibly significant because the first step to solving any problem is recognizing that there is one,” Ms. Jadick said. “However, then we must commit to solving it. Only by promoting an equitable and inclusive work environment that promotes the engagement of women can we improve the future of surgery for the betterment of all of its stakeholders, especially patients.”
Ms. Jadick had no financial relationships to disclose.