2021 presents an unprecedented time for women in surgery, exemplified by the fact that the BOA has a female Vice President Elect, and BSSH, BAPRAS, BAAPS, and the ABS all currently have female Presidents. In order to mark this incredible milestone, they have all very kindly shared their experience as a woman in surgery, including how they have challenged and overcome certain expectations and stereotypes in their respective specialties, and their advice for future budding female surgeons. A female Trainee from each Association has also shared their own account to provide a comparison of experience between the generations.

Deborah Eastwood - Vice President Elect of the BOA

Consultant Paediatric Orthopaedic Surgeon at GOSH/RNOH
Director of Medical Education at the RNOH
Associate Professor UCL

Why did you choose to pursue a career in your surgery specialty?

Early on, I realised that surgery was a craft and the patient a puzzle that needed putting together correctly. Do all the bits; the history, the examination and the investigations fit together neatly to make one picture? Is surgery the right option to make the picture better. Orthopaedic surgery can alter someone’s quality of life overnight: it removes pain, improves function, and allows you to stand tall. It removes the dis- from disability and reveals the ability in everyone. It helps people be the best they can be. 

Where there any challenges you faced regarding this decision?

I did not ‘see’ any challenges regarding my decision – there were raised eyebrows and inappropriate questions at interviews but I took these to mean they were interested in me and if I had to ‘explain’ things to them to show it was appropriate for me to do the role, then I was happy to do so.

Where there any challenges or stereotypes you experienced as a woman in your field of work?

During my registrar training, I was aware that I talked about myself as ‘one of the boys’. In retrospect I was ‘one of the team’ and was always included. I do not remember feeling excluded but I was different. I chose that to mean that if I was different I would be more likely to be remembered and then it was up to me to ensure that I was remembered in a positive way!

My first orthopaedic boss told me that it was ‘technique not strength’ that mattered. His words have served me well throughout my career.

What would you say are the most effective ways to encourage more women to pursue careers in our respective areas of surgery?

I may be too late in my career to truly understand what I can do to support our current medical school students but I do believe in being ‘seen’, being ‘good’ and being ‘myself’. They say you cannot be who you cannot see – but throughout my career I chose to see  the many excellent colleagues (male I admit) who loved their work, cared for their patients and who did the best they could do – I wanted to be like them. I did not see a major difference between myself and them.

I do believe in visibility, mentoring, and encouraging people to ‘try’ the specialty. Medical schools need to engage far more with MSK health and orthopaedic surgery is an important part of this.

But above all …. Being part of a surgical team, is a privilege and a rewarding career choice.

Chinyelu Menakaya

Trauma and Orthopaedic Trainee

Why did you choose to pursue a career in your surgery specialty?

I have always loved building new things, therefore the choice of T&O was easy, I knew in it I could create so many things. I would create hope, happiness, and a bit of magic. I smile each time, I fix a broken bone or see someone crippled by degenerative joint disease dance because of new shiny metal joint or a teenager stand tall after corrective spinal surgery. I choose to continue to build not just my patients but a career where we can make dreams come true.

Where there any challenges you faced regarding this decision?

Although the decision was easy, the journey has been extremely challenging. I was once told by my educational supervisor that because I was ‘foreign’ I would never become a surgeon. At different critical points, I have met people who believed that I should not succeed because of my gender and colour. These challenges can break you and I have contemplated giving up multiple times. I constantly remind myself of the words of Michelle Obama “When they go low, we go higher!”. Therefore, I drew inner strength, focused on my dreams, worked harder but most importantly reminded myself every day of my goals, and kept at it.

Where there any challenges or stereotypes you experienced as a woman in your field of work?

My story has an additional twist-I am not just a woman but, I am also black. I am stereotyped from the moment I walk in. A professor I met once told me that I would be employed because they needed ‘people like me’ to make up the numbers. Even though I worked ten times as hard, my hard work meant nothing. I was told that as a woman, I was not strong enough. I find it hard to understand how physical strength is a benchmark for surgical skills and knowledge. These words and actions are the foundation of my motivation to work harder because you either accept their wrong perceptions of you or create your future by excelling. I decided that the latter was the better choice.

How did you challenge/overcome them?

I stand on the foundation that failing to plan is planning to fail. I make sure I focus on my dreams, go above and beyond in being prepared, work extra hard and stand on the hope that my successes will make a difference. I love the words, ‘No’, ‘Can’t’, in them, I draw strength to make a positive impact. In the end, my patients are all that matters and I go home happy and ready to face it all again.

What would you say are the most effective ways to encourage more women to pursue careers in our respective areas of surgery?

I believe we need to set up more community mentoring schemes at different levels from as early as A-levels. These would expose more women and young girls to the beauty that is surgery. This would serve as a great support network and also as a guide towards creating awareness about the surgical world. It aids appreciation of what the journey involves especially in areas of tackling innate fears that stops other women and girls from actually pursuing this as a career. With the advent of social media, female surgeons should be engaging more with the public to raise not just awareness but also an inviting arm to join the profession.

How can we best support current female surgeons?

Personally one of the things that has kept me going is seeing successful female orthopaedic surgeons who are making global impacts. I have drawn strength by working with some of them. They give me hope and sharing experiences with them, I know that if they can do it, so can I. I believe creating role models with one-to-one mentoring will encourage more women to tow the same career path. I am lucky, I have an amazing female hand surgeon who 4 years after I left her job, I ring anytime to discuss not just difficult cases but my struggles in general. This makes the journey easier.

Find out more about the experiences of women in surgery at the following Associations/Societies:

Association of Breast Surgery (ABS)

The Association of Surgeons in Training (ASiT)

British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS)

British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons (BAPRAS)

British Society for Surgery of the Hand (BSSH)