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Women are still underrepresented in surgery. Kansas doctors say mentorship can help

Lindsay Strader, a colon-rectal surgeon in Wichita, founded the Blackwell Club to connect with other women surgeons and build a mentorship pipeline for those earlier in their careers.
Rose Conlon
Lindsay Strader, a colon-rectal surgeon in Wichita, founded the Blackwell Club to connect with other women surgeons and build a mentorship pipeline for those earlier in their careers.

The Blackwell Club, at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita, brings female surgery residents and attending physicians together for community and education.

WICHITA, Kansas — Lindsay Strader says she began to feel the effects of surgery’s gender imbalance as a resident.

“I felt frustrated, but I didn’t have any kind of resource that I could go to,” she said. “There just wasn’t that kind of infrastructure at the time.”

Now, Strader — a colon-rectal surgeon at Wichita Surgical Specialists — leads a group at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita that brings together women surgical residents and attending physicians for support and mentorship.

Strader’s Blackwell Club, named after the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States, now meets regularly to discuss the unique challenges women surgeons face.

“As women surgeons, we are becoming more of a norm,” she said, “but, certainly, support needs to be there.”

Women now make up more than half of medical school graduates, but they’re still significantly underrepresented among surgeons.

“A big part of this club is recognizing what we can change out there, what we can make more equal and what areas we need support in,” she says.

Strader says she founded the club during the pandemic when she was a new mom navigating the complexities of parenting alongside a demanding career. She wanted to connect with other women who’d gone through it before and discuss strategies for reducing burnout.

She also hoped to create the sort of mentorship pipeline she wished she’d had earlier in her career.

“I want to give back to the residents and be a source of support and community,” she said, “and someone to bounce ideas off of how to make it easier.”

On a recent spring evening, a dozen participants — some in scrubs and some with young kids at their sides — gathered around the kitchen island of an east Wichita home.

Soon, the group delved into the day’s discussion: work-life balance. Strader passed out research studies. Among doctors, surgeons work some of the longest hours. That can pose more problems for women, who often have more responsibilities at home.

A 2011 study found that three-fourths of the spouses of female plastic surgeons work full-time, while less than a third of the spouses of male plastic surgeons do.

For most women surgeons, Strader said, “there’s nobody at home taking care of the house, taking care of the kids, taking care of the leaking water faucet in the basement.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had a stay-at-home wife?”

Brittany Wilson, a first-year surgical resident at KU Med-Wichita, first learned about the club before she started residency. She said she values the connections she’s made.

It’s also helped her understand particular challenges facing women surgeons, including ergonomic issues. A recent Blackwell Club meeting went over strategies for adapting to surgical tools that are still, typically, designed for male hands.

“Finding ways to still make it work for us is important,” she said. “I’m really thankful that I’m here.”

Several studies have indicated that patients tend to have better outcomes when their surgeons are female — with shorter hospital stays, fewer postoperative complications, lower health care costs, and a lower chance of dying than patients treated by men.

More research is needed to determine why, but some experts point to different attitudes toward risk-taking and women spending more time, on average, per procedure.

Despite that, women surgeons earn less than their male counterparts — even after controlling for specialty, seniority and other metrics. The gender wage gap among surgeons and other physicians is larger than the national average.

Women are especially underrepresented at the highest levels of academic surgery and hospital leadership.

“There’s a delay up the pipeline and a loss of women throughout both training and practice,” said Heather Yeo, an associate professor of surgery and population health sciences at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.

“There are a lot of complicated factors that go into that — some of which have to do with implicit bias and this traditional ‘old boys network,’ and some of it having to do with other factors that affect women in all kinds of different specialties,” she added.

Yeo, who is the diversity, equity and inclusion director of the Association of Women Surgeons, says women surgeons encounter sexism in the workplace from colleagues and, sometimes, patients. Like many women in male-dominated fields, they often have a harder time networking and finding mentors.

They might have to outperform men to achieve the same opportunities and accolades as men. Yeo wants to be in hospital leadership one day, so she decided to get an MBA — even though, she says, many men in similar positions don’t have them.

“Individuals who are more likely to feel like they don't have someone they can turn to are more likely to be women and they're more likely to be underrepresented minorities,” Yeo said.

Still, she and other experts say groups like the Blackwell Club can encourage women to become surgeons and help them persevere in a male-dominated field.

“These opportunities — the mentorship and the relationship-building — do seem to help people as they progress in their careers,” Yeo said.

Back in Wichita, as the Blackwell Club meeting wrapped up, KU Med-Wichita clinical surgery professor Marilee McBoyle told residents that the field has come a long way in the four decades she’s been a surgeon. She hopes their generation keeps pushing for more.

“There will be,” she said, “many different career paths you can take, and there may be … opportunities that you have that you don’t know exist today.

"I'm just excited for you."

Copyright 2024 KMUW | NPR for Wichita

Rose Conlon