It Takes More Than A Scalpel To Break Through The Glass Ceiling Of The Operating Room: 3 Tips For Mentoring Women

It was three in the morning when I received the call to come to the hospital. A 56-year-old male had fallen off a ladder and sustained a spinal cord injury, paralyzing his arms and legs. Looking at his X-rays and MRI, I informed the patient and his wife that he had severe bruising of his spinal cord. To relieve the pressure and give him the best chance of recovery, I explained, I would need to operate through the back of his neck. I would then use ten screws and two rods to fuse his spine. While I couldn’t guarantee that he would recover, I assured them that this was one of the most common operations that I perform. “Ok,” his wife responded, “but who’s going to do the surgery?”

As a 5’4” woman, I am regularly mistaken for a messenger or assistant. This is a regular experience for me, and, to judge from the stream of stories in “women doctor blogs,” I am not alone. The glass ceilings in the operating room may be sterilized with medical-grade disinfectant, but it takes more than the flick of a scalpel to break through. 

I navigate the challenge of unconscious bias with the support of mentors who have facilitated my success through strategic networking, solid advice, and empathy, techniques that transcend industries. If you are looking to show up as a mentor for the women in your network, here are three steps that you can take to foster an inclusive professional environment and build relationships that will pay dividends.

Mentorship Tip #1: Find ways to amplify women’s voices

Women’s voices need to advance to the forefront in order to change normative gender stereotypes. The data is clear: women hold fewer positions of authority than men, from S&P 500 CEOs on down through organizational structures. The more that women’s voices can be amplified in a broad setting, the more quickly we normalize perceptions of women in power. The next time you coordinate a panel or can’t attend a panel in which you have been asked to participate, consider whether there are women in your network with the expertise to contribute.

When a long-time mentor of mine recommended me to present at the premiere spinal deformity course, he paved the way for opportunities that immediately paid off. Amongst approximately 20 speakers, I was the only woman. Importantly, I wasn’t just a woman, but a woman with the expertise of a skilled spine surgeon. The talk itself enabled me to learn from a lively discussion with other healthcare leaders, grow my network, and made a statement that a petite woman of color belongs on the mainstage. 

Mentorship Tip #2:  Ask your mentee what success looks like for her

When I sought advice for selecting a spine fellowship, another male spine surgeon said to me: “Well, remember, as a woman, aren’t you going to have children?” While well intentioned, he was encouraging me to lower my ambitions, and implied that the life of a spine surgeon was not compatible with motherhood. Or when I was negotiating salary, a man on the other end said: “Your husband has a successful financial technology company, doesn’t he? Do you need the money?”

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Contrast those stories with this one: Early in my career, one of my greatest mentors asked me what success looked like to me. I shared with him that I wanted to leverage my knowledge as a healthcare expert to improve patient care on a large scale. One month later, I found myself on a cross-country flight to have coffee with one of his colleagues, chair of the board of one of the largest health insurance companies in the country. By helping me seize opportunities to explore non-linear career tracks, mentors like this one have prepared me to translate my skills across contexts.

Women are socialized not to aim as high: men are 4 times more likely to ask for a raise than women.[1] Be the mentor who recognizes a unique skill set and paves the way for unbridled ambition. 

MENTORSHIP TIP #3: Empathize with your mentee

Academic orthopaedic surgery is a notorious boys club, where choosing a family obligation over a professional one is often seen as weakness, and I am sure many readers outside of medicine are nodding. While you can’t change a culture alone, recognizing the challenges is the first step to letting women in.

When my toddler’s caregiver informed me that she wouldn’t be coming to work that day, my husband and I faced a familiar dilemma. Either I had to cancel surgery, or my husband, who is growing his business rapidly, would have to cancel a meeting with a potential investor that he had been chasing for months. As is typical for us, we chose the latter. When I shared this with my boss, he offered sage advice: “Deeptee, in my relationship, it was always my wife that cancelled her day. But she is also a career oriented professional, so why was it was always her? No matter what the reasons, if your husband is always the one cancelling his day, it can lead to resentment.” He let me in to his life, and at the same time, acknowledged that man or woman, we are both parents, spouses, and surgeons. This was a sentiment that no mentor in spine surgery, let alone my boss, had ever shared with me before.

Being a professional woman feels isolating at times and the best mentors I have had don’t pretend to be superhumans. As a mentor, empathizing with the shared experiences goes a long way to foster an inclusive workplace environment, while also providing solutions to problems as they arise.

[1] Babcock, Linda, and Sara Laschever. Women don’t ask. Princeton University Press, 2009.

The Tycoon Herald