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Women of Stanford Neurosurgery: A conversation on gender, race and mentors

Over the summer I spoke with numerous female faculty members in Stanford’s neurosurgery department about their backgrounds and experience working in a traditionally male-dominated field. Below is a portion of my conversation with Odette Harris, MD, an associate professor.

When were you first interested in science?

I was more interested in math rather than science, because when I was in grade school I’m not sure I understood science as a concept rather than as an integrated component to mathematics. In high school I had an interest in science and did well in science. I went to an all-girls school and was taught science by a woman, and really quite enjoyed it – all those clichés about girl schools and empowering girls and women, I think they’re true. It was then, at this all-girls high school, that I developed a huge love for the physical sciences and chemistry. I don’t know that I ever had a concrete voicing of “I want to pursue science;” I wanted to become a doctor, and these were the necessary things. I had an interest in biology and was quite good in biology and knew I was going to major in the sciences in order to meet that interest.

Did your gender pose a problem as you advanced in your field?

Medical school was probably the turning point both in terms of gender, and race. In my class I was the only black woman and so that was a turning point, but I didn’t feel singled out... There were disparities in terms of gender, and there were disparities in terms of race. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Residency was probably the biggest gender difference; at that time there was only one other woman in residency, and she was the year ahead of me. So, when she left the program I was the only woman in the program for a while. It was still an excellent experience, and I have overwhelmingly positive memories of medical school and residency. I also have very positive memories of mentors that I had at Stanford, and of the encouragement that I got to go into neurosurgery from people at Stanford.

My mentor was a white man who is blond and as East Coast as can be, and he owns that perspective, and I couldn’t have had a better mentor. I don’t think I needed a black woman mentor to know that I could be who I am. Society may look at him and assume, well, he’s just a white male, what does he have to add to this picture? But, in fact, he’s mentored me in a way that no one else could have because of the depth of his compassion, and care, and drive. I don’t know that I could get that from anyone else, and his skin color was irrelevant, as was mine to his experience of mentoring me. On the face of it, he’d be the least likely candidate to resonate with my experience, but he was the best candidate for it in the end. So I hope that I, too, stand as a mentor for women of all colors, for students of all colors. One of the best parts of my job is that the people who come to work with me are all different: men and women, black students, white students, Indian students. I mentor a whole spectrum of people, and I love that.

What parts have gender and race played for you as a doctor?

You’re black, you’re a woman, you’re in an all-white hospital -- patients are constantly reminding you of that. I could list probably a hundred different experiences where I was asked to empty the garbage, or take out the trays, or clean out the toilets, when I was just there to use the bathroom myself. My existence is not one where race and gender can be teased, and everything I do, every day, every experience, that’s a part of who I am... When I talk to my other colleagues, people don’t question their accomplishments or ask them for their CV, or say “are you here to take out the trays?" or talk around them, or above them. It’s only when you see it in that context that it resonates... My co-resident used to always say to the patient, “actually, she’s our chief,” and I used to think it was funny, but now I think it was a real moment of their acknowledging that they’re not going to stand for it, as men.

Do you think the future is hopeful for the next generation of women scientists?

I think that my children are somewhat luckier, in the sense that the barriers that they face in many ways are not comparable to the barriers that their mother faced, and that gives me hope. I don’t think it’s a paved path for them, or any girl, quite honestly, but I think that to see us, they know that if we could do it, if they choose to do it, there’s a way to do it...

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

Previously: Women of Stanford Neurosurgery: "We must affect change in overall attitudes about women with power"Women of Stanford Neurosurgery: "There’s always a way to make it work for you" and Women of Stanford Neurosurgery: "If there’s something that you want to do, you do it"
Illustration by the Department of Neurosurgery

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