Pointing Women Toward a Career in Orthopaedic Surgery

Forty-five years ago Title IX was established to provide everyone in America equal access to any program or activity that receives federal financial assistance. As a result, and for the first time, public schools were legally required to provide girls and boys with equitable sports opportunities.

The result of this landmark decision was historic. Before Title IX one in 27 girls played sports. Today that number is two in five with women currently comprising about one-third of all college athletes. These women start playing sports and participate in fitness training at a young age – similar to young boys – and are finding that the self-confidence they gain on the field, in the pool, or on the court provides an incredible foundation for success in the classroom and later in life in the boardrooms.

This dramatic rise in the number of female athletes has, not surprisingly, also led to a rise in the number of athletic injuries that they incur. Sadly, however, there has not been a proportion rise in the number of female physicians or, more specifically, female orthopaedic surgeons trained to treat this growing demand. That is unfortunate because a study published in the December Journal of Internal Medicine reported that female physicians are more likely to provide preventive care and psychosocial counseling, have a more patient-centered communication style, and are more encouraging and reassuring than their male counterparts.

Presently women make up only 6.1 percent of fully accredited practicing orthopaedic surgeons according to a 2014 survey by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. (Overall women comprise fewer than 20 percent of all surgeons despite comprising about 47 percent of all medical school students). This number is shamefully low but can be remedied if we make a conscious effort to do so.

First, we must find ways to expose high school and college-age students to the field of orthopaedic surgery and its tremendous career potentials. The Perry Outreach Program, which we will again be hosting this spring at the Orthopaedic Institute for Children in Los Angeles, is great example. This program provides free hands-on experience for female high school students as well as women currently enrolled in medical school who are considering pursuing a career in orthopaedics. Participants hear lectures from local women surgeons, network with industry leaders, and perform hands-on skills modules and mock orthopaedic surgeries.

Second, more female surgeons need to be mentors to medical students. They need to be role models in both words and actions and demonstrate how fulfilling a career as surgeon can be. They need to encourage and inspire young women to be leaders in these fields and to foster an understanding of and appreciation for the career that may lie ahead.

Third, we must make a conscious effort to tear down the stereotypes and outdated thinking that still exists regarding female surgeons. In far too many quarters, there remains the perception that being a surgeon is too demanding for women and is not a supportive environment for women who want to have children and raise a family. The truth is that surgery is as manageable as any other field of medicine so we need to do a better job of telling this story … and highlighting the accomplishments of women who day after day prove that this is so. 

Orthopaedic surgery is an amazing field, and the need for female orthopaedic surgeons has never been greater. Many women who enter the field of orthopaedic surgery enjoy working with their hands; seeing tangible results from the wonderful things they do; “fixing people” instead of managing disease; and, in the case of sports medicine, getting the athlete back in the game.

All of us in the medical profession must do our part to break old stereotypes, turn the compass in the right direction, and encourage bright young women to open their eyes to a world of possibilities.

Jennifer J. Beck, M.D., is associate director of the Center for Sports Medicine at the Orthopaedic Institute for Children and assistant clinical professor in the department of orthopaedic surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

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