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Doctors say mentorship can help as women are underrepresented in surgical careers

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Women now comprise more than half of medical school graduates, but they're still underrepresented among surgeons. A club at a Kansas medical school is trying to bridge that gap by bringing together female surgery residents and attending physicians for support and mentorship. Rose Conlon of member station KMUW dropped in on a recent meeting.

ROSE CONLON, BYLINE: A dozen surgeons and residents, some with young kids, are huddled around the kitchen island of a Wichita home, decorating homemade bookmarks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thirty minutes to dry.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And then we're going to spray it with...

CONLON: They're here for a meeting of the Blackwell Club, a support and education group at the University of Kansas School of Medicine in Wichita, named after Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S. Brittany Wilson is a first-year surgical resident. She enjoys the community and mentorship and talking through challenges unique to women surgeons.

BRITTANY WILSON: One of the sessions, we just focused on how the ergonomics of surgery is different for women. A lot of times, we have smaller hands, and so - typically, surgical tools were developed for men's hands, and so...

CONLON: Right.

WILSON: ...Finding ways to accommodate that and still, you know, make it work for us.

CONLON: Wichita colorectal surgeon Lindsay Strader founded the club a few years ago when she was a new mom to connect with other women surgeons and discuss ways to reduce burnout.

LINDSAY STRADER: As women surgeons, we are becoming more of a norm, but certainly that support still needs to be there. That's a big part of this club, is recognizing what we can change out there, what we can make more equal.

CONLON: Soon, the group delves into today's discussion - work-life balance. Strader passes out research studies. Among doctors, surgeons work some of the longest hours. That can pose more problems for women, who often have more responsibilities at home.

STRADER: And a striking finding is that three-fourths of the spouses of women plastic surgeons work full-time, right? There's nobody at home taking care of the house, taking care of the kids, whereas less than one-third of the spouses of male surgeons are employed full-time.

CONLON: Recent studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association and others have shown that patients tend to have better outcomes when their surgeons are women - fewer complications, shorter hospital stays and a lower chance of dying. Some experts point to different attitudes toward risk-taking and women spending a bit more time on average per procedure. Despite that, women surgeons earn 8% less than their male counterparts after controlling for specialty, seniority and other metrics, according to the Association of Women Surgeons. Heather Yeo is the director of diversity at the Association and an associate professor of surgery at Weill Cornell in New York. She says women are particularly far from parity at the highest levels of academic surgery, especially women of color.

HEATHER YEO: There are obviously a lot of complicated factors that go into that, some of which just have to do with implicit bias and surgery having this traditional old boys network and some of it having to do with other factors that affect women in all kinds of different specialties, not just surgery.

CONLON: That can include sexism from colleagues and sometimes patients, a harder time finding mentors. Women often feel like they need to go above and beyond to get the same opportunities and accolades as men.

YEO: One of the things I want to do is I want to be in a leadership position in a hospital, and in order to set myself up for that because there are biases about what women can do or have experience doing, I ended up getting an MBA, even though I knew I probably could do it anyway, and most of the men that do it don't have one.

CONLON: Still, experts say groups like the Blackwell Club can encourage women to become surgeons and help them persevere throughout their careers.

For NPR News, I'm Rose Conlon in Wichita.

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Rose Conlon
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