The erasure of gender in academic surgery: a qualitative study

Am J Surg. 2016 Oct;212(4):559-565. doi: 10.1016/j.amjsurg.2016.06.006. Epub 2016 Jul 18.


Background: The number of women in surgery has steadily increased, yet their numbers in academic surgery positions and in high-ranking leadership roles remain low. To create strategies to address and improve this problem, it is essential to examine how gender plays into the advancement of a woman's career in academic surgery.

Methods: Focus group (1) and one-on-one qualitative interviews (8) were conducted with women academic surgeons from various subspecialties in a large university setting. Interviews examined women surgeons' accounts of their experiences as women in surgery. Audio-recorded data were transcribed verbatim and coded thematically. NVivo10 software was used for cross-referencing of data and categorization of data into themes.

Results: Focus group data suggested that gender discrimination was pervasive in academic surgery. However, in interviews, most interviewees strongly disavowed the possibility that their gender had any bearing on their professional lives. These surgeons attempted to distance themselves from the possibility of discrimination by suggesting that differences in men and women surgeons' experiences are due to personality issues and personal choices. However, their narratives highlighted deep contradiction; they both affirmed and denied the relevance of gender for their experience as surgeons.

Conclusions: As overt acts of discrimination become less acceptable in society, it does not necessarily disappear but rather manifests itself in covert forms. By disavowing and distancing themselves from discrimination, these women exposed the degree to which these issues continue to be pervasive in surgery. Women surgeons' ability to both identify and resist discrimination was hobbled by narratives of individualism, gender equality, and normative ideas of gender difference.

Keywords: Gender discrimination; Qualitative; Surgery.

MeSH terms

  • Academic Medical Centers
  • Canada
  • Career Choice
  • Faculty, Medical*
  • Female
  • Focus Groups
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Physicians, Women*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Sexism*
  • Surgeons*