A few years ago, I started a hashtag campaign #AttendingLounge. Initially, I asked some of my closest female surgeons friends on social media to share advice about what it is like to be a female surgeon in this day and age.
Why? Because I think mentors are so important. And, I especially think young women need to see that it is possible to be female and a surgeon. Many of us are also mothers and I think there’s a mistaken belief common amongst high school and college students that surgeons cannot be good mothers. Of course, speaking as both, I think there is nothing further from the truth. But, to combat that kind of misinformation, we must have an open dialogue where we discuss our families, our struggles and what our daily life resembles.
When I was a medical student at Cornell 20 years ago, my mentor (a female general surgeon) never spoke about her home life. I didn’t ‘know if she was married or had children. I didn’t know how surgeons made their lives work – do they have nannies, do they alternate days on call with their partners? These were discussions that women surgeons never discussed. As if pulling back the curtain for how they manage their daily lives would somehow lessen their accomplishment. Or perhaps there was a concern that discussing traditionally female concepts such as child care would seem to lessen their commitment to surgery. I can only speculate. But, I can say, I absolutely never had a frank discussion with any female attending physician in medical school.
I still clearly remember having such a discussion with a retina surgeon in residency. If you don’t know, retina surgeons are the bad asses of ophthalmology. And, it’s a specialty which is still pretty male dominated. I remember my retina attending, talking about how much she paid her nanny to care for her kids and how worth it was for her since her job had many emergency surgeries. That was the first time I’d ever hear it discussed.
I think many younger women in school and training are afraid to ask their attendings these type of questions for fear of seeming rude. I think social media breaks down these barriers. I have been able to share my journey in the hopes that I can inspire a young woman that it is possible. This was never my intention when I made my Instagram profile public. I assumed I would be educating about ophthalmology. But, I received message after message from young women, asking if it it was possible to be a physician and a mom. Questions about managing work and family. And, I realized this topic is rarely addressed in any pre-med or medical school curriculum. So, I started shifting my focus and discussing these topics more and more.
My 7 friends and I posted our thoughts on being a female surgeon, and each one had such a unique take on their journey. My friends were plastic surgeons, OB/Gyns, reproductive endocrinologists, urogynocologists and orthopedic surgeons. Some of us were parents, some weren’t. We attended schools all over – New York, California, Texas, Ohio. But what was most interesting was that despite all of our differences – how similar some of our stories were. Our journeys as female surgeons overlapped is many ways.
After that campaign, something unexpected happened. I was inundated with so many messages. First, from those in school and training who thanked me for initiating this discussion. And, more surprising, was the number of female physicians who contacted me and wanted to share their stories. They asked to join in.
So, it expanded and the next time I asked almost 30 women physicians to share advice they would give their younger selves.
I think that was my favorite one thus far. To read each other’s stories, to witness their struggles, their triumphs and to read younger women’s response to those recollections was truly empowering.
And, the feedback – that’s what convinced me, how necessary this collection of stories, this mentorship is.
To move forward as women in medicine, we must share. We must inform the younger generation of female physicians of our experiences. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Let’s share our knowledge. In the next few weeks, I’ll be highlighting some of my favorite posts from the campaign I started a year and a half ago. Because I think those stories are so important to know.