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Just 9 percent of female medical students want to be surgeons. What one group is doing about it.

The lack of young female doctors gravitating toward surgery is a concern, and could lead to an overall shortage in the field, says a Tampa surgeon who is pushing for change.
Published Feb. 20

The idea took hold a decade ago, inside Dr. Sharona Ross' Tampa living room.

She, along with a handful of other physicians, invited women medical residents and students to talk about their interest in the field of surgery. Ross, a surgeon who specializes in gastrointestinal procedures at AdventHealth's Digestive Health Institute, was stunned to hear what many of them had to say.

"Everything they'd heard about surgery was negative," she recalled. "It was aggressive to train for, and there was no time for a family or a husband. The training was very male-oriented at the time. A lot of what they were saying was true, but I was still shocked."

The experience pushed Ross to launch the Women in Surgery Symposium, a two-day conference for female physicians, medical students and undergraduate students who have an interest in pursuing a surgical career. Over the last decade, the annual gathering has attracted hundreds of medical professionals, making it the largest event anywhere for women in surgery. Some come from as far away as Japan, Australia, Mexico and Canada.

While it was founded in Tampa Bay in 2009, the symposium has traveled to other cities. But last weekend it returned home as the surgeons convened at the Sheraton Sand Key in Clearwater.

National data confirms the gaps that Ross found locally, and they point to a much larger problem. Fifty percent of medical students in 2018 were women, but only 9 percent of female medical students pursued a career in surgery, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Women make up less than 20 percent of all general surgeons, the group says, and fewer than 5 percent of surgical program chairs.

"Unless we encourage more women to pursue a career in surgery, we will have a shortage of surgeons in the future," Ross said.

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A lot has changed since the first year of the symposium, she said. "But the perception hasn't."

As the conference grew, it became a place where established surgeons and those just coming into the field could exchange ideas and learn from each other.

"It's more forgiving," Ross said of the setting. "It can be very intimidating to present research in an academic setting for the first time. This is great practice, without the fear of failure."

Michalina Jadick, a premed freshman at Boston University, attended the symposium for the third time this year. The first time was with her sister, when the two were still students at Hillsborough High.

"The first time I went, I had no idea what to expect and I was nervous to be around all these doctors," said Jadick, 18. "I was also unaware of the problem. I knew that women were underrepresented in STEM fields in general, but not so much in surgery."

Rather than feeling intimidated, Jadick said she found the issue empowering. She said the credit for that goes to doctors like Ross for having such a welcoming and inclusive nature.

"This was the first time I was really exposed to this, to be sitting next to doctors and women in medical school who are in it right now," she said.

"When I'm in school, I'm just steam rolling through it, focusing on the next homework assignment, not really thinking of the future of my age group or demographic. I could see then how those perceptions were reflected in my day-to-day life."

The theme of this year's conference centered on millennials in the workforce and work-life balance, Ross said.

"There is this generation gap. We are very different from one another in how we work," she said, comparing veteran surgeons to those just entering the field.

"Our culture is not the same, and some people may feel that the millennials aren't working as hard as we did. That's obviously not true. It's just different."

This generation of young doctors has different goals, Ross said. They want to be able to manage a career in medicine with a family and a home life, where in many cases, that wasn't possible for the women who paved the way in medicine before them.

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"It's important that we discuss these differences," said Ross, the mother of four children. "And we need to bring attention to it."

She also said she hopes doctors who attended the conference will practice what they preach. For example, Ross works with an all-female team of surgeons and support medical staff in her operating room at AdventHealth Tampa hospital.

"When I started, I was the only woman in the (operating room) other than the patient," she said. "That's not the case anymore."

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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