Last week, a medical student friend of mine applied for her first job as a surgeon. Seven of Cambridge’s finest surgeons faced her at one end of the table and quizzed her on career plans. The interview sounded like the scariest experience a student would have to go through, but she actually enjoyed it – you can just tell she’ll go far. But there was another aspect to this interview. Six of the surgeons were men. The only woman there was actually an obstetrician, who would not be hiring my friend. She was clearly there for the day as the women’s representative. She’s actually one of those amazing achievers, who’s managed the job of consultant, as well as mother to five children. In any discussion at Cambridge about women in surgery, this lady is always invoked as the proof that it can be done. If you ever probe further for examples though, the proof rapidly disappears. There are no other female consultant surgeons in her hospital, and few in training.
A consultant surgeon’s role has many similarities to business managers. They run a large team (nurses, doctors, operating theatre assistants, administrators, secretaries) and have to make sure things run on time. The percentage of women at the top is also low. Meg Whitman is the current favourite example of female business leader. She’s the President and CEO of eBay, and doing wonders for them. But again, if you ask for extra examples, most of us are at a loss.
The low number of women surgeons and women business leaders is currently a cause for much concern across the pond. Several initiatives, both private and public sector, are being set up to counter this. The SpringBoard 2000 conference put women entrepreneurs in touch with venture capitalists. The National Women’s Business Council publishes research on the matter. And various web sites, such as Oxygen.com, iVillage.com and Women.com, are targeting the lucrative smart young working mother market. Even in the slower moving world of surgery, hospitals are changing their teaching programs to more family-friendly schedules.
These efforts do work. Kim Fisher, founder of AudioBasket.com, secured an extra $12 million through SpringBoard’s Silicon Valley conference. Her company is the reason I’ll be getting an MP3 player. No, they don’t provide pirate music. Instead it’s news shows and commentary. Pick your interests, pick your providers, and soon you can download the programs to your MP3 player for listening pleasure. Kim received her funding through many sources, not just the women-centric conventions. But these events offered her valuable networking skills and contacts.
The online magazines have built up a loyal following. They’re going through some dot-com consolidation as the markets punish tech stocks. But they still have their fans, including Dr Jennifer Wider, editor of Medscape/CBS Healthwatch, who vigorously defends their status. On the surgical side, the number of women trainees is beginning to pick up in America.
In the UK, a few companies are rising to challenge. One recruiting company was trying to tackle the under representation of minorities in the City. I joined them due to my Arabic origins. But another “minority” they help is women. In their training days, they looked at us individually, and helped us plug the gaps in our skills. The company’s popularity has allowed them considerable expansion.
So are these efforts justified? Critics don’t approve of favouritism as a solution. But if you look at these initiatives, they’re more sophisticated. At SpringBoard, the business plans are judged as such, not as business plans by women. There are hard-nosed venture capitalists with only one thing on their mind – money. At the London recruiting company, the support is individualised, with no stereotype assumptions – I needed help with presentation skills, others needed different things. And I don’t hear the male surgeons complaining about the new option of part-time surgery training.
For my friend’s birthday last year, we bought a biography of a famous US surgeon – one of the first women in her field. My friend read it, absorbed it, and is busy creating her own legend. I wish her luck, but have a feeling she won’t need it.