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Women of Stanford Neurosurgery: “There’s always a way to make it work for you”

As part of a recently launched series, I've been speaking with female faculty members in our neurosurgery department. Last month, I shared my conversation with Melanie Hayden Gephart, MD, and next up is Ciara Harraher, MD. Harraher is a Stanford clinical associate professor who talked with me about, among other things, her path to science and her advice for girls and women considering this line of work.

When were you first introduced to science? 

Even as a young student I was always drawn to biology and studying behavior. The neurosciences was just burgeoning as a science field at that point and so I just tended to be attracted to projects in that area, even as young as middle school. When I went to college I focused on neurosciences and did a bit of benchwork research. But I saw that dealing with people and dealing with patients was a better fit for my personality, and so at that point I decided to pursue medicine.

Was there anyone who encouraged you to pursue science?

As a child I was encouraged to pursue science. I didn’t have any family members as role models in the field, but I think it was my eighth grade biology teacher who sent me to a 'girls in science' camp at a local university. For a week, I went to this university and did things that had to do with science and it was for girls in science, and I really liked it. I would say I was supported in terms of becoming a scientist and a doctor, absolutely.

Was there anyone who discouraged you from pursuing science?

I was definitely encouraged to do science and to become a doctor, but I was not encouraged to become a neurosurgeon. I was definitely discouraged in terms of becoming a neurosurgeon – by other neurosurgeons and by physicians that I worked with in medical school. I believe that it came from a good place, in that they were concerned that the lifestyle would be punishing, and that it would mean sacrifices to me in terms of other things I might like to have, like a family. I think that as a woman, part of it was the child bearing, and the time off during a surgical training program, even the small amount of time off required to have a baby.

Things have changed since then: When I was in my residency program there was no chance of being pregnant, that was never going to be allowed, that was never going to be tolerated, nor did I ever even think I could have done it because the hours we were working were so crazy. But they’ve tried to make it a bit less draconian, and work hour restrictions and programs have changed, and it’s now routine for residents in the Stanford program to have babies. That means not deferring having children as long as I had to defer it, which was until I was finished with the program. So, I think that the reasons people discouraged me were valid [because] the road is a little bit bumpier for women in neurosurgery, but I think that a lot of it can be overcome by changing the culture.

What can we tell young girls to encourage them to pursue a career in science?

One thing I noticed throughout my training with women, is that we were all often second-guessing ourselves: 'Are we good enough, are we smart enough, do we know enough, have we prepared enough, do I practice this surgery enough to do it on my own, maybe not, maybe I should have somebody with me?' I just don’t feel that our male colleagues, just from a societal point of view of how they are trained, dealt themselves in that same kind of way -- to question their right to do it. I think that process of self-doubt actually isn’t all bad, it can make you a better doctor and a better surgeon because you are always questioning – do I know enough, am I good enough? – versus assuming you are. And so I think that you kind of have to be aware of that, and have insight into that, and realize that those forces are at work in society.

As much as we try to protect our little girls and raise them to think that they can do whatever they want to do there’s a lot of societal pressures that are out of our control that change how they view women, you know, in terms of media, politics, and we can’t completely control what they feel and hear. That’s the reason we must continue to tell them to not be discouraged by people that say “you can’t” or “you shouldn’t” or that it will mean giving up other things. There’s always a way to make it work for you, there’s always a way to figure out how you can make it work for you, and I think that a lot of people in neurosurgery didn’t really do that with me. No matter what anyone says to you, you can be just as good at science -- you might learn things differently, or at a different pace, but you can get there.

modified version of this piece originally appeared on the Stanford Department of Neurosurgery's website.

Previously: Women of Stanford Neurosurgery: "If there’s something that you want to do, you do it", Female biomedical faculty progress toward parityStanford surgery chair Mary Hawn and the changing face of the OR and What it is truly like for women doctors: A Stanford resident shares stories of gender in medicine
Illustration by the Department of Neurosurgery

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