Surgery has been largely a male-dominated specialty in medicine, with many female physicians not believing that the demands of surgery and the testosterone-filled environment would be welcoming. Yet, that picture is changing: More women are now entering the field, and more female surgeons are mentoring aspiring female physicians and encouraging them. Stanford Medicine’s Mary Hawn, MD, chair of the Department of Surgery, is one of those leaders and mentors.
Hawn told me in this 1:2:1 podcast that growing up in a family of five girls and two boys was, perhaps, the root to her path. “We were all treated the same, with the same expectations that we would go to college, have a career, and be independent,” she told me. “From early on, I never had this construct or framework that boys went on to be certain things, and girls went on to be other things. It was all about what your desire or passion is, what you are naturally good at, and pursuing it.”
She grew up in a small town in Michigan where, she said, “I knew I always wanted to be a physician. In the community I grew up in, physicians were highly regarded, very warm and were making a difference and an impact on the people who lived in the community.” She wound up going to the University of Michigan, which had an integrated premedical/medical program, and her career was launched.
So what fueled her commitment to a career in surgery? “It wasn’t until my third year… I became absolutely fascinated by surgery and particularly abdominal surgery. Back then, we didn’t use nearly as much imagery as we do now. The abdomen was really a black box. It really required the art and skill of the surgeon to both make a diagnosis as well as intervene with the treatment. The diversity of diseases and the acuity of diseases that we saw was very broad-ranging and very interesting.”
I asked Hawn about some of the stumbling blocks that still exist for women contemplating a career in surgery. She took a minute and then gave a straightforward and thoughtful response. “Women are still discouraged from going into surgery. It’s still seen as a very male-dominated field. It’s seen as a field with not as much control over your life or lifestyle as other professions, and [there’s] a feeling that’s its more challenging for women surgeons than it is for male surgeons. ”
So what does she tell young women physicians thinking about surgery but still apprehensive? “I love that quote by Sheryl Sandberg, ‘Don’t leave before you leave,'” she said. “I use that same rationale with these students, because often they are not married, they don’t have children, and those are things that they aspire to also have in their lives. But [I tell them] don’t limit yourself now based on things that you may want in the future, because I think that you can always figure out a way to make it work out…”
Is she hopeful, I wondered, that as more women become surgeons they’ll also rise to leadership positions within academia, a place where gender gaps still remain? “I do think we’re at a time where we’re making a big impact on women in leadership,” she answered. “We’re definitely not there yet, but I see many more women stepping up, wanting to be leaders and applying for leadership jobs. One of the things I’ve done is create some new leadership roles and vice-chair roles. I’ve put women into two those roles, so they have major leadership efforts in the department.”
Hawn believes that a richness of diversity in leadership and an array of people within her department from a variety of backgrounds is good for everyone. “It brings more creative ideas and solutions. It gives everybody role models or people that they can aspire to be like. If we just had a department of white guys, when the students would look at that they’d say, ‘I don’t see how I fit in there, so I’m not going to this of that as a profession.’ We should make sure everybody’s successful.”