Additionally, if you have ever been around a group of surgeons, you will most likely be “in a room of a lot of men”, Ota told Study International. And “particularly because a lot of the time they are significantly older than you – as you are a medical student – [some women] can find that quite intimidating”. While Ota personally is not fazed by what she describes as a “boys’ atmosphere” in surgery, many women may find it “quite off-putting”. She explained: “I can see how if that’s not an environment you want to be in, it can put you off a specialty, even when the actual specialty itself is really interesting to you.” How can we encourage more women into these roles? In Ota’s opinion, the main way to get more women into higher positions is for medical schools to host events where students can see representatives of themselves. “I think a big problem with this sort of thing is if you don’t see a representative of yourself in an area, you kind of assume that is an area which is closed off to you,” said Ota. When Ota has met with female neurosurgeons personally, she has found it totally transformative. Ota claimed she has this moment where she realises: “This is a young woman, maybe four years older than me, and she looks like me and she thinks like me and she is doing exactly what I want to do, so why can’t I do it too?”
“Women can go into surgery, even if they do decide to have children,” she said. But it is important to remember “it is not something that they have to do – women are not baby-making-machines”. “It can put some women off because they feel like ‘oh I have these things that I have to do because I’m a woman and maybe surgery isn’t it’.” All medical students, regardless of gender, are warned of the lifestyle a job in medicine brings; students know no matter what facet of it they decide to specialise in, medicine is unlikely to give them the best work-life balance. “It’s actually known for being as bad as it gets,” Ota said. “Particularly things like neurosurgery, which is one of the smallest specialties in terms of numbers; free time is often limited so I think that is something which puts women off.”
Hosting events which open up these opportunities to young women can be somewhat life changing for them. The Royal College of Surgeons and the Royal Colleges themselves host many “women in surgery events”, but more needs to be done, Ota said. The events show women “that you can be a surgeon and be a wife or a mother if that’s something that’s important to you”. “Dispelling a lot of these stereotypes would really help,” she said. What is it like for women who wish to take time off to have children? Sadly, “even when women do get into the more specialist areas, if they take a break [for children or other reasons], particularly with surgery, it can be quite difficult to go back into it”. Surgeons who take career breaks often have to undertake some retraining. Ota said: “Particularly for women who do choose to have a break for children, I don’t know how much support there is for moving back into the field.” Showing female medical students women at the top of their game may inspire them to venture down routes they feared were closed off. Add this to better support for women wishing to re-enter surgery after taking time out, and it may inspire a new generation of surgeons.