"Surgery is an exciting and rewarding field. It requires a combination of intellectual, technical and patient-care skills," said Kathrin Troppmann, lead author of the study and an associate professor at UC Davis. "It has traditionally been one of the most male-dominated specialties in medicine, so the conversations about workplace changes that could encourage women to choose and to stay in surgical careers are just getting started. Our goal was to provide health-care leaders and policymakers with good information for encouraging those conversations."
Troppmann, a gastrointestinal surgeon, has seen a growing number of women in medical school classrooms. Today, as the medical school student body consists of 50 percent women, she mentors more women interns and residents than she did a decade ago. She predicts that the surgical profession, where women currently constitute just 14 percent of the workforce, will catch up to these trends by expanding the number of women in its ranks. Based on the survey outcomes, the study team hopes that the profession will develop policies that will help accommodate the long, irregular hours associated with working in the operating room.
"With women becoming a big part of the recruitment pool, it's essential to understand their needs and expectations," Troppmann said. "Otherwise, it will be difficult for institutions to recruit top surgeons. And, if the workplace can't be flexible, the surgical field will lose a lot of talented women."
To get an accurate picture of the work and life experiences of their colleagues, Troppmann and the study team sent questionnaires to all U.S. surgeons who were board-certified in 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004. Of the 895 respondents, about 20 percent were women and 80 percent were men. The survey included a range of questions related to practice type, number of years in surgery, marital status, children, child care and work schedules. The responses were compared based on gender.
In addition to decisions regarding childbearing, women responding to the survey were distinct from men in their interests in part-time or temporary work schedules. Most men and women favored onsite child-care facilities, although this opinion was much stronger among women.
Other findings include:
General surgery was the most common specialty for both genders. Significantly more women than men specialized in breast surgery and fewer women than men specialized in vascular surgery. There were no other gender differences in subspecialties. Women were more likely than men to be single or divorced. Men worked a median (midpoint) of 65 hours a week, compared with 60 for women. Women were significantly more likely than men to have spouses who worked outside of the home. More women than men reported that maternity leave was important to them. Troppmann hopes surveys like hers will become standard practice in medicine and across specialties and organizational levels, since such information is crucial to gauge and respond to the evolving needs of the medical workforce.
"What we have found doesn't apply solely to surgeons," she said. "Surveys like ours can be helpful in understanding the needs of everyone who currently works in medicine."