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Stereotype perception linked to psychological health in female surgeons

8116089104_be12619731_oFemale surgeons who believe there's a stereotype that men are better doctors are more likely to suffer from psychological distress, according to a recent study led by a former Stanford resident.

First author Arghavan Salles, MD, PhD, looked at the correlation between the perception of a stereotype — whether individuals think others believe certain groups are superior physicians — and the overall mental well-being of residents.

The team surveyed 382 residents from 14 medical specialties. To examine views on stereotypes, participants were asked: "Do you think residents in your program expect men or women to generally be better [doctors]?" They were also given standard psychological assessments.

Female surgeons were the only group where stereotype perception was correlated with psychological health. Surgery has traditionally been dominated by men and remains a specialty chosen by about twice as many men as women, leading to the persistence of gender stereotypes.

"As a surgical resident, I was aware of the stereotype that men are better surgeons than women. Although I found the stereotype upsetting, I didn't think about it too much," Salles told me. Then, after studying stereotype perception while pursuing a doctorate in education, Salles decided to combine her two specialties to determine whether residents experience stereotype threat; a question that no one had asked before.

The link she found has implications for physician productivity and patient care, Salles said.

"I think it's important to realize that in the world of medicine, although the ratio of males to females is changing, some of these old stereotypes still have an impact on the practitioners," said co-senior author Claudia Mueller, MD, PhD.

The belief that others think women aren't good enough adds an unnecessary stressor to the female residents' already harried lives, Mueller said. It could also contribute to the high attrition rate of females in surgical disciplines, the study states.

Mueller said the study, which appears in the Journal of the American College of Surgeonsis noteworthy for its rare integration of two quite disparate fields, surgery and psychology.

The authors suggest that simply increasing the number of female surgeons may help dissipate the stereotype. Sharing information about the stereotype may also help, as could investigating any practices that may have a differential effect on men and women, the researchers write.

Salles is now querying residents, faculty members and members of the public to see how prevalent stereotypes about gender-based differences in ability actually are.

Previously: How two women from different worlds are changing the face of surgery, Keeping an even keel: Stanford surgery residents learn to balance work and life and Stanford Medicine magazine opens up the world of surgery
Photo by Phalinn Ooi

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