Elizabeth Blackwell Society Board Members Olivia Bernal, Christy Hong, Gia Yannekis, Jessica Dong, and Rosaline Zhang.
The Perelman School of Medicine’s (PSOM) Obstetrics and Gynecology (Ob/Gyn) interest group, Elizabeth Blackwell Society (EBS), and Leo Leung Orthopaedic Society recently hosted a panel discussion called "The Specialty Less Traveled." The event offered first and second year medical school students the opportunity to learn from the experiences of four Penn Medicine physicians whose genders are underrepresented in their specialty in hopes they would learn what options are available to them as they progress in their medical careers.
As a gender minority in their specialty, the evening’s panelists, Kristy Weber, MD, chief of Orthopaedic Oncology, Michelle Smith, MD, an assistant professor of Neurosurgery and Radiology, Nathaniel DeNicola, MD, MSC, an attending physician in Ob/Gyn, and Ines Lin, MD, an assistant professor and section chief of Surgery and a plastic surgeon, defy national statistics from the Association of American medical Colleges that show their specialties predominantly served by the opposite gender. For example, 81 percent of those in obstetrics and gynecology residencies are female and 13 percent of those in orthopaedic surgery residencies are female.
The panelists shared their stories of how they traversed career choices and the challenges they overcame, and offered advice to the approximately 30 medical students in attendance.
“We wanted to create a conversation to know how physicians who chose to go in fields dominated or perceived to be dominated by one gender do, and why they chose to enter that field and how it feels,” said Christy Hong, a second year medical student and board member of PSOM’s EBS who helped organize the event.
As medical students start clinical rotations in a few months and have other career decisions ahead, Hong and her fellow PSOM students appreciated hearing insight and issues the panel experienced as a gender minority in medicine.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” said Kristy Weber, MD, chief of Orthopaedic Oncology in the department of Orthopaedic Surgery. “It’s hard to know if you have a passion for something if you don’t see whether it’s possible. Sometimes in specialties where there’s less than one particular gender, you think that’s just how it is and you get discouraged.”
Although there are no doubt challenges along the way, all of the panelists reported having a passion for their work and were glad they chose their current paths.
"As a woman interested in going into cardiothoracic surgery, a surgical field that is still largely dominated by males, it was very inspiring to hear these women talk about how they dealt with resistance (personal and from others) going into their fields,” said Rosaline Zhang, a second year medical student and EBS board member. “They were honest in taking into consideration lifestyle, and sacrifices that had to be made.
“But they also made a good point that medicine is practiced in a diversity of ways (academic vs. private practice, the life of residents vs. life of attendings).”
One student asked for tips on how underrepresented groups can be an advocate for themselves, be present and get equal opportunity among peers of another gender who may not share the same interests, cultural practices, or background.
Michelle Smith, MD, an assistant professor of Neurosurgery and assistant professor of Radiology, offered some relief.
“It’s extremely important when you get into that field to not have a chip on your shoulder, and not to constantly feel like you have to prove yourself, but always do a great job – for your patients, for yourself, and for your team,” Smith said. “If you do a great job and you’re passionate about the work, people will notice that and benefit from that.”
While only 20 percent of neurosurgeons in the United States are women, that doesn’t influence Smith’s work on a daily basis.
“I don’t think of myself as a woman in this field,” she said. “I think of myself as a physician in vascular neurosurgery who is exceptionally passionate about what I do.”
Weber echoed that sentiment and added that mentorship may also be valuable for students interested in fields predominantly populated by another gender.
At the same time, sometimes the greatest driver of career decisions is simply being near others who doubt you can accomplish a particular goal. As a medical school student at Johns Hopkins, Weber was the only female among the 13 students going into orthopaedics.
“People said that’s not going to happen, you’re not going to get in,” Weber said. “When they told me I couldn’t be in orthopaedics, I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
Weber, who originally was interested in a sports medicine career as a doctor for the Olympics, changed her interest early on to orthopaedic oncology because of the range of work involved.
“I’m part of a team including medical and radiation oncologists who work together to treat people with musculoskeletal tumors,” Weber said. “I’m still on the mobility side, working to save legs and arms and giving patients mobility with use of incredible technologies. It’s a far cry from sports medicine, but I thought that the difference I could make in someone’s life is bigger than making them a little faster on the track—so it was more a more meaningful route for me.”
Nathaniel DeNicola, MD, MSC, an attending physician in Obstetrics and Gynecology, said he originally aspired to be a team doctor for the Los Angeles Lakers and scheduled his Ob/Gyn rotation for his third year of medical school because he didn’t think he would enter that area of medicine.
“I fell in love with the renaissance nature of the field,” DeNicola said. “I loved that there was a lot of operating, as well as labor and delivery. The simultaneous caring for mom and baby with both of them in the balance, sometimes you have to act very quickly and very decisively and when it turns out well, you get a big rush.”
DeNicola’s words were inspiring to students seeking advice on handling challenging patient cases.
"Physicians are in the unique position to provide care in very complicated, emotionally charged situations, and can have a powerful impact on a patient's experience during an otherwise unfamiliar, anxiety-inducing situation,” said Olivia Bernal, a second-year medical student and EBS board member. “I hope to be a physician who can provide comfort and compassion in addition to improving a patient's health. Having this kind of meaningful impact is why I wanted to become a physician."
Asked if patients have ever treated the panelists poorly due to their gender, some of the physicians said they have received some inexcusable comments, but that their medical teams are always supportive of a healthy work environment and manage those very rare cases appropriately.
Also, panelists noted that patients are more likely to request them because they wanted a physician of their gender, than they are to receive a request for someone else—but both cases happen rarely and are handled on a case by case basis.
“I’ve never had a situation where, in an emergency, I’ve been turned away as the only provider who would be there,” DeNicola said. “Among the vast, vast minority who don’t want a male provider, the vast majority of those individuals are no longer worried about it after talking for a minute or two, and the conversation turns to what’s most important for the patient’s healthcare.”
Ines Lin, MD, an assistant professor of Plastic Surgery and a plastic surgeon, summed up the sentiment of the panelists well.
“I love what I do and can’t imagine doing anything else,” Lin said. “Once you find that passion, it doesn’t matter as much who else is around you.”
Panelists were also hopeful about the future of medicine and the next generation of doctors improving the diversity of many specialties.
“I’m happy to see that a lot more women are considering going into the neurosurgery field,” Smith said. “Every time I come back from a national meeting, I see more and more women and women trainees, so it’s exciting. But men are still welcomed."