The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I’m a female surgeon. I feel uncomfortable telling girls they can be one, too.


Nikki Stamp is a heart and lung surgeon in Perth, Australia.

Every time a little girl or a young female student has asked me if she can be a surgeon, I wonder if I’m about to sell her a lie. The answer, of course, is yes, she can — I’m living proof. After all, I finished my specialty training to become one of the minuscule 5 percent of heart and lung surgeons who are female.

But while I think women can do anything, the problem is that the people who think otherwise are often the ones in power with the ability to make or break you. This information is never divulged to young hopefuls.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr. Arghavan Salles and her colleagues examined biases held by health-care workers. They found that professionals across the field — both men and women — exhibited explicit bias regarding women, more likely thinking that men should be surgeons and women should pursue family medicine (though female health-care workers were significantly less likely to hold these biases). These aren’t all "bad apples"; we all have biases. However, consciously or unconsciously, we don’t always see surgery as a place for a woman.

We don’t tell this to the young girl aspiring to enter medicine. And that’s what makes me uncomfortable. No matter how much we tell her she can do anything, I worry we’re misleading her on all the obstacles she’s bound to face along the way.

We never tell her the reality of life as a female surgeon in a profession where the boys’ club is alive and well. Or that she will probably be looked over for promotions and leadership positions; will be less likely to get important research grants or be made a full professor; and will earn less for doing the same job as a man. Or that her dreams of scalpels and the bright lights of an operating room will be dimmed by people who assume she isn’t the surgeon.

We don’t warn her she’s likely to experience sexual harassment. We don’t tell her the horror stories, as I’ve heard, about male colleagues who introduce themselves to new female staff with threatening messages such as “If I grope you, I absolutely meant to.”

And we certainly don’t tell girls that in the face of all these obstacles, there are those in medicine who try to refute the existence of gender bias with a denialism seemingly rivaled only by those who eschew climate change. Or that, despite a growing body of research that shows the devastating effects of gender bias in medicine on female doctors and female patients, many in medicine are enabling this problem.

These discouraging facts are by no means isolated to medicine, as the members of the U.S. women’s soccer team have demonstrated. Sadly, for most women, there is no stadium chanting "equal pay." You just have to survive, and even that can be a tall order.

I don’t actually want to break the hearts and shatter the dreams of any little girls. I don’t want to tell them the ugly truth, for the simple reason that we shouldn’t have to. We should be sufficiently embarrassed and alarmed by the disparities between men and women in my workplace and in all workplaces. Instead of worrying about whether we should be brutally honest with our girls and young women, I would rather see an acknowledgement of the problem and then taking steps to fix it.

When girls or women ask me if they can be a surgeon, I’ll still say yes, they can. I’ll still encourage them because despite the obstacles, I love my job and I want to see the ranks swell with more women. And I will still tell them that just because they are female, it has no bearing on whether they can or should do a job. But I will then tell them that it may not be an easy or fair road, and that I am going to keep fighting and holding accountable the people and the system who will make a liar out of me and a tough road ahead for the next generation. Despite my fears, I don’t lie to the next generation, but I am determined to change the system, not the women who try to survive in it.

Read more:

A letter writer responds to this op-ed: There’s a new reason for young women to be hopeful looking at the medical field

Nikki Stamp: I’ve been a surgeon in Australia for 16 years. I’ve seen only two gunshot wounds.

The Post’s View: The U.S. women’s soccer team has more than earned equal pay

Megan McArdle: Why the debate about equal pay for U.S. women’s soccer isn’t that clear cut

Robert J. Samuelson: What’s the real gender pay gap?