Neurosurgery Chief Durham Answers the Question "Why Aren't There More Female Surgeons?"

March 6, 2019 by Michelle Bookless

"Why does society first think 'male' when they hear the word 'surgeon'?" Associate Professor Surgery and Neurosurgery Chief Susan Durham, M.D., asked the group of medical students.

Associate Professor of Surgery and Neurosurgery Chief Susan Durham, M.D.

Ever wonder why people think of a man when they hear the word “surgeon?" Associate Professor Surgery and Neurosurgery Chief Susan Durham, M.D., posed that question to a group of more than 30 medical students on February 21 during a lunchtime lecture she presented, titled "Addressing Gender Disparity in Surgical Sub-specialties." Hosted by the Surgical Sub-specialty Experience Program for which she serves as a mentor, Durham’s session delved into historic and current gender disparity among surgical sub-specialties. She encouraged students to question why the societal stereotypes about surgeons continue to lag behind other medical specialties, and proposed strategies to promote recruitment and retention of female physicians in surgical specialties.  

Durham is an expert on this topic, and not just because she is a female pediatric neurosurgeon and one of only three female chiefs of neurosurgical training programs. She is also the lead author and investigator on a study that delved into neurosurgery residency match data between 1990-2007, in order to determine if applicant gender affects neurosurgery match outcomes. Her findings, which were published in the Journal of Neurosurgery in 2018, concluded that "USME Step 1 score is the best predictor of match outcome," it also suggested that applicant gender "may also play a role as female applicants have lower odds of matching compared to male applicants." 

During the presentation, Durham touched on some of her research findings and presented additional data about further disparities including pay gaps between men and women in the same specialties. UVM Larner College of Medicine student Kalin Gregory-Davis'22 said that the data Durham presented was jarring but not entirely surprising, "especially the pay scale that exists where surgical sub-specialties with the most women are the least well paid overall," she said. "This just shows how institutionally and systematically based the disparities are."

So, how and why has gender played a role in the gender disparity within surgical sub-specialties? Based on her research and experience in the field, Durham suggests a number of factors, including the lack of gender role models, an implicit bias by interviewers during the residency interview process, and burn-out created by regularly encountered implicit and explicit biases and societal expectations for women.

Despite these ongoing challenges, Durham is hopeful for the future. She notes the increased encouragement of young girls to succeed in STEM programs, the push by women in medicine for equal pay and the progress towards that end, the increase of female surgeons like herself who serve as mentors for female residents, and the attention that campaigns such as the 2015 #ilooklikeasurgeon Twitter campaign bring to this important issue.

Class of 2022 medical student Sylvia Lane said that although she's not interested in pursuing a career in surgery, she attended the talk because she believes it's applicable to all fields of medicine and was impressed that students identifying as both male and female attended.

Gregory-Davis agreed. "It is imperative that all genders hear this information," she said. "Those who don't identify as female are also a large piece of the puzzle in in eradicating gender equality."

As the presentation closed, a student asked "So, why and how, with all of these challenges, do you do it?" Durham smiled in response. "I love my job," she said.


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