More women choosing surgical residencies

It was once feared that as the number of women in medicine increased it would be difficult to recruit students to these specialties.

By Myrle Croasdale — Posted Sept. 17, 2007

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As physicians celebrate "Women in Medicine Month" in September, it appears that surgery is beginning to lose its status as one of medicine's male-dominated fields.

Take Natalia Glebova, MD, PhD, a first-year resident in general surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She had not considered a surgical career until a vascular surgeon took the time to work with her during a medical school rotation.

"When I saw the possibility and creativity of what can be done for patients with vascular disease, the different options you have and the immediate results, I absolutely fell in love with surgery," said Dr. Glebova, a graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and now on a path to become a vascular surgeon.

Dr. Glebova is not alone in her choice. Almost 40% of residents entering general surgery residencies in 2007 were women, double the number a decade ago. In the overall surgical work force, the number of women has risen to about 14% in 2005, up from about 9% in 1995, according to the American Medical Association.

Surgery's leaders once feared that more women graduating from medical school would mean fewer surgical residents in the pipeline, as women pursued more lifestyle-friendly medical careers. In fact, the number of residents matching in surgery dipped in the late 1990s and early 2000s, before rebounding in the last few years.

"People were very concerned at the time," said Frank Lewis Jr., MD, executive director of the American Board of Surgery. "But that's all turned around, and surgical programs are as competitive as ever."

Dr. Lewis predicts women will make up 50% of entering interns in the next five years.

It appears that a critical mass of women in leadership positions, along with an increase of women in the overall surgical ranks, has been enough to encourage an increasing number of female medical graduates to follow their lead.

Resident duty-hour limits also may make surgery a little more appealing to women looking for work-life balance. So, too, do rules that require residencies to have maternity leave policies, Dr. Lewis said. In addition, new surgeons are seeking what flexibility they can by practicing in groups, where they can get coverage more easily when they need time off.

Those were factors in Dr. Glebova's decision. She saw a number of women with surgical careers at Johns Hopkins and she saw women with families and residents taking maternity leave. However, it was meeting the department chair that was the deal maker.

"Our chair is a woman," Dr. Glebova said. "She has a family and a demanding position, but she makes the time to talk to students and residents. After I met her, that solidified my interest in surgery."

Dr. Glebova is referring to Julie Freischlag, MD, surgical department chair at Johns Hopkins. As a past director of the American Board of Surgery, Dr. Freischlag is convinced that having women in visible leadership roles makes the difference. She believes in a maxim she has heard along the way: You can let women in, but if you don't allow them to lead, they will leave.

"When they [students] see women leading, they realize the field is open to them," Dr. Freischlag said.

She's seen the change herself. When she came to Johns Hopkins five years ago, only 10% of its surgical residents were women. "Now almost across the whole country, surgical programs are 30% to 50% women," Dr. Freischlag said.

In addition, the American Board of Surgery has had four female directors and recently named its first female associate executive director. And this year, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons is under the leadership of its first female president.

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Growing ranks

Over the past 14 years, the number of women entering general surgery nearly doubled.

Women (percent of
first-year residents)
Total first-year
1993 228 (19.4%) 1,178
1994 260 (22.1%) 1,178
1995 256 (21.9%) 1,168
1996 236 (20.3%) 1,161
1997 246 (21.9%) 1,121
1998 254 (22.8%) 1,116
1999 270 (24.3%) 1,112
2000 270 (25.1%) 1,074
2001 311 (28.9%) 1,075
2002 326 (29.8%) 1,095
2003 318 (28.9%) 1,102
2004 314 (28.1%) 1,117
2005 356 (31.8%) 1,118
2006 405 (38.2%) 1,059
2007 412 (37.6%) 1,096

Source: American Board of Surgery

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