Where to start? A woman is naturally a caregiver. Being a caregiver requires empathy, and that empathy may be what draws many women towards medical sciences as a career. However, this role bestowed on most of us by nature, and thrust upon the others(not naturally inclined to maternal responsibilities), by society is a double-edged sword. Why? Most women in the medical sciences career shy away from surgical disciplines because it is considered time-consuming and thus considered to hurt our families since we are the designated caregivers.
For the longest time, there have been very few women surgeons, a phenomenon noted globally, and even in supposed developed countries as is evidenced by statistics in the USA, UK, Canada… Do you get the drift? There is a rise in the numbers of female medics, and dentists and yet no rise in female surgeons. Many people wonder why. The numbers of female obstetricians and gynecologists are higher because they are dealing with, well, women issues.
The main reason here, in my view, is mentorship. Yes, the older surgeons may have mentored women to take up surgical disciplines as careers, but to be honest, most women need just a bit more mentorship from people that they actually can relate to. This might have been the reason for the emergence of the ‘women in Surgery’ movement, that have given rise to societies like Association of women surgeons(AWS), globally, regionally Women in Surgery Africa (WISA). I think the next thing obviously would, of course, be a national association for Kenyan women surgeons.
It is an exciting time to be a woman interested in surgery, partly I think because of the internet, that has made communication and networking much easier. I mean who didn’t come across the most recent internet trend #ILookLikeASurgeon started by women surgeons and women surgeon blasts in training to raise awareness that yes, it is possible, it can be done, yes, women can be surgeons. Very exciting times indeed.
Now, we recognize male surgeons and their efforts to mentor us, we truly do. However, women need mentorship from someone who has gone through surgery and has gone through pregnancy and child rearing plus the difficult process that is balancing both. The fact that women keep going back to this topic tells you that it is a major issue for most of us. It is why women shy away from surgery, it is why a number of women in surgery shy away from starting families until they are done with surgery. We, women, are amazed by the ones who have gotten and raised children while doing their residency in surgical disciplines. They have ovaries of steel those ones, ovaries of steel!
This motherhood in surgery thing comes with many issues that most men wouldn’t understand.
For starters… I don’t know the male equivalent for dysmenorrhoea( menstrual cramps), for some of us, it is crippling and interferes with our schedules
Point number 2- The whole pregnancy period. Each successive trimester. What would be the male equivalent of pregnancy? A beer gut/beer belly? Do men get exaggerated back posturing plus waddling like ducks when they have beer bellies?
Point number 3- navigating delivery/active labor period.. Science fiction fans who have watched Stargate Atlantis will remember the scene in season 4 or 5 where one of the expedition members. Tayla goes into labor on an alien spaceship and one of the men, a scientist called McKay tried to relate to her problems by comparing labor pains too when he and get this, his cat had kidney stones…He went into a detailed explanation of how he and his cat got over passing their kidney stones. Tayla was pretty composed, if it was me, I would have momentarily psychologically suppressed my labor pains and gone on to strangle him. So anyway, I don’t know if men can relate to labor to passing kidney stones… I really don’t know..
Point number 4- Matters lactation…we are talking having problems lactating, having problems getting the baby to latch( and nope, I was not amused those times one of my classmates from undergraduate gave me a doll and told me to practice. This is me still able to give a withering glance),matters breastfeeding, matters breast pumps, and looking for rooms in workplaces to go express milk.
I think the closest that a man came to talking about breastfeeding,is when there was this video of a sleeping bare-chested man, whose cat woke up and decided, ‘ Boobs! I see boobs! Let me sneak a suckle!’ (*DISCLAIMER: I don’t speak cat, but if I was a cat, I am guessing that would be my thought process). Then proceeded to attempt to breastfeed from the poor guy while his girlfriend recorded the whole thing and posted on the internet for cat crazy people like me to watch and laugh!
Point number 5- what to do when househelps up and leave just when a woman is needed to go to work. This is a scenario that is seen in all careers. A scenario that is quite a disaster for a female surgeon, and affects male surgeons on the rota because it means they have to cover shifts since she can’t make it to work. The only men who can relate to this, are men who are single fathers. Even then most usually live with a female relative who can help out. As women in surgery, in one of our informal forums, this issue was discussed. I gathered quite a lot of tips from it, on how to entice your house help not to desert you in times of need, that would really come in handy when I finally take the leap to be a serious pet parent. It takes a whole village to raise pets.. and children! Never ever forget the children!
Lastly, on a more personal note. Growing up, I grew up around some surgeons. As a kid, I only knew about the long working hours. I was lucky to meet few obstetrician-gynecologists who were female, growing up. The first time I met a female surgeon, I was 18 years old, and in awe.
She was a little lady, African, silver-haired with a very serene smile. She was from Cuba, if I am not mistaken, a Dr. Marilyn. I just watched surgeons brushing up on hand anatomy saying she tended to ask tough questions. I remember sitting right next to her and having lunch with her and I couldn’t even ask her any question, not even one. All I kept thinking was, I would love to be just like her one day.
In my undergraduate, I didn’t know what surgical discipline I would want to get into, but I knew the scalpel was for me. I leant towards obstetrics and gynecology. Why? I am a Muslim. Muslim females in medicine are highly encouraged to go into obstetrics and gynecology not only by our families but by members of our own religious community. It is why you will see quite a number of Muslim women going into obstetrics and gynecology. Two main reasons, passion and willingness to help women(especially fellow Muslim women and encouragement from the Muslim community.
As an undergraduate in my fifth year during my electives, I hang out with female surgical registrars/residents and I was like oh yes it can be done. It was during my internship that I truly asked myself if I saw myself doing obstetrics and gynecology for the rest of my life, and to be honest,I really wasn’t into the idea. I always knew that I wanted to do surgery, and would have done it whether or not I found female mentors because I am a rebel like that and once I set my mind on something I go for it.
However, not every woman is as crazy and stubborn as I am, and most give up their dreams too easily because they can’t see someone they can relate to(i.e. female surgeons) telling them that it can be done. Mentorship is not only before one joins surgical programs, but during training and even long after training. Anytime a female medical student or female doctor approaches me and tells me of their interest in surgery and surgical disciplines, I get excited. I think in my own way, giving whatever little mentorship that I can is my way of paying it forward after being mentored by the men in surgery in my life, and the amazing tough women in surgery that I have had the fortune to meet.
Regionally and on an informal note, women surgeons are reaching out to each other and discussing the unique issues that we face as women in surgery. Through that, we are developing each other in matters research, career etc we are discovering that the issues we face in Kenya, a good number are also faced by women in surgery across the continent, while others are uniquely Kenyan. Totally fascinating if you ask me. They probably arise due to the fact that other countries have different specialist training programs.
We do recognize the role that male surgeons have played and continue to play in mentorship in surgery, but women in this country, in Africa and globally are saying they would also like mentorship with that feminine angle.