As someone who has never considered going into surgery up until this point, the recent Women in Surgery event hosted by BISA really changed my perception. Insightful, inspiring and wholesome – just a few words to sum up the evening. With females making up over half of medical students in the UK but only 11% of consultant surgeons being women, I was intrigued to find out about the experiences of our panellists and how they overcame the challenges they faced. 
For those of you who could not make the event, our three panellists were:
· Miss Stella Vig – Consultant Vascular and General Surgeon
· Miss Nina Mistry – Post-CCT Otology Fellow, ENT Surgeon
· Miss Vasha Kaur – Bariatric Surgical Registrar and Clinical Research Fellow at Imperial College London
Our panellists - (left to right) - Miss Nina Mistry, Miss Vasha Kaur and Miss Stella Vig
Surgery is an incredibly rewarding career that involves decision making, manual dexterity, and working alongside many inspiring mentors. The panellists gravitated towards surgery due to the ability to treat a patient instantly and receive immediate gratification from the work you do. They shared some of the skills that they believed were key to succeeding in surgery. Bravery was highlighted, especially in terms of grasping opportunities and believing in yourself when handling challenging situations. Stamina, communication, teamwork and resilience were all also mentioned. That being said, the key to success was emphasised as having a true passion and dedication to achieving your goals! All of these apply to both men and women. Remember that the skills are picked up along the way – the will-power comes from you, and consistency is key!
Imposter syndrome was a theme that came up quite a few times throughout the discussion. It is very easy to let self-doubt overcome your feelings of achievement and success. Miss Kaur specifically mentioned a ‘sense of imposter syndrome’ when returning from maternity leave. However, there are ways to override these feelings. One of the hardest steps is to actually admit to yourself how you are feeling – then you can work hard to move forwards. ‘Own the fear, make a plan, focus, and you will get through it’. I feel like this can resonate with many other obstacles in our life too – a sense of grasping control on your life and your actions.
A very relevant topic of discussion was the impact of ethnicity on the guests’ professional journeys. Miss Vig mentioned that ‘sometimes, because of our culture, we can have low confidence, which can subsequently impact our professional growth’. For some people, a stricter upbringing and their family background may influence their confidence. However I feel that societal perceptions are changing with the new generation. Furthermore, family support can be very variable with communities, and becomes even more different when marrying someone from a different community to yourself, as well as the background pressures (such as starting a family). That being said, it is important to remember that there is always support behind you. This is different for everyone, depending on personal circumstances - it can be family, friends, or even nannies. Furthermore, surgery is often referred to as the ‘old boy’s club’, and whilst this concept can be seen as very old-fashioned, support and mentoring amongst colleagues is still very necessary, through networks such as BIMA and WinS. Knowing ‘your people’ that can encourage you, mentor you, and also be there for you when you need it, is so important and can also bring a sense of comfort!
The panel also discussed how their gender has impacted their careers. The main hurdle mentioned was leadership positions. Miss Vig is a SSA member on the council for Royal College of Surgeons, and is a role model to all of us! I found her ability to juggle her professional responsibilities and family life, along with her enthusiasm to teach the next generation to be inspiring. With regards to women being in these leadership positions, the importance of local changes and then building up to national level changes was suggested. Equality vs equity was mentioned, concluding that it’s important to have the right tools to the job well and properly, and making sure you grasp opportunities! ‘Resilience, stamina, believing in yourself’ – with that, anything is possible! ‘Do what is right for you and find like-minded people that can support you through your journey’ – something I think that everyone should keep in mind, for both surgery and medicine!
The plate spinning analogy. One that I personally have heard about many times which I think is a great way of thinking about how to balance everything happening in our lives. We all know about plate spinning in a circus right? It takes patience and skill to learn how to spin the plate well. Now imagine that you have multiple plates spinning. It is much harder to keep all of them spinning at the same time. This can be the same with a work-life balance, something which all three of the panellists highlighted as being very important! Of course there will be times when certain plates will start to wobble – but this is when we should focus more time and effort into keeping these things going!
Alongside having a work-life balance, parenthood was a much appreciated topic discussed in the discussion. One of the first things discussed in the session was personal achievements, of which all three panellists first mentioned their children, which was especially heart-warming. Something I personally found interesting was Miss Kaur explaining how she didn’t feel any different to her colleagues until she became pregnant, after which she appreciated her future responsibilities as a mum and the potential challenges of juggling work with pregnancy. This change in mindset can understandably take you by surprise, regardless of whether or not you were expecting this new step in your life. Furthermore, Miss Vig mentioned that in a BMJ article that she published, she wrote that she wished she was there more for her children. However, her children came back to her expressing that she was there more than enough. This highlights that, no matter how much you are there for your children, the guilt you feel when you have to leave them for work will always be there no matter what! Nevertheless, it is so important to get the balance right and do what works for you – whether that be having a nanny, spending as much money on childcare as you can afford (a piece of advice Miss Mistry said she was given that she stands by) – anything that can help take the pressure off you! Remember that there is no magical formula to all of this, apart from putting the time and effort into your relationship and family. ‘Work your surgical career around your aspirations of being parents’.
I’m sure everyone wants to know about the secret behind the success of the guests, and any general advice from them. First and foremost, being organised and having a mentor – someone who can motivate you. As Miss Mistry mentioned, it is a marathon not a sprint! Take the steps necessary to reach your goals with patience and dedication. Surgeons are like swans – a calm and serene exterior, and being very hard working inside! For those of you who are unsure about pursuing surgery, the panellist’s main advice was to just give it a try! Having an open mind during placement and getting as much exposure as you can, as well as choosing some surgical rotations, can help you decide. Furthermore, they recommended having a portfolio with research, audits, courses, all to highlight your interests.
Hopefully some of the tips and advice from our three guests can help you when figuring out whether surgery is right for you! Please let us know if you enjoyed the event and this article, and if you have any thoughts! Lastly, a big thank you to our three guests. The evening was so informative and motivating for all of us, and each of your experiences have taught us so much. We are incredibly grateful for you taking the time out of your weekends to share your invaluable advice with us.
1. England, R.C.o.S.o., Statistics. 2020.