Female mentors cannot change the past, but they can influence the future
Ten years ago, I did not know the name Ruth Jackson or the society named after her. I was also unfamiliar with Jacquelin Perry and The Perry Initiative. Somehow, I found my way to orthopaedic surgery without a female mentor, albeit through a circuitous route.
I spent my years of training, both residency and fellowship, working with fewer than 10 female orthopaedists—seven residents and two faculty members.
I made it, though, so what’s the big deal? I am a board-certified orthopaedic surgeon with a faculty position at a great institution. I am married to a supportive physician husband and have a lovely toddler, and we have plans to expand our family.
My story is not unique. Mentorship is essential for both men and women, and I am by no means taking anything away from the inspiring male mentors in orthopaedics who have guided both sexes through successful careers in orthopaedic surgery.
Female mentors for female orthopaedic surgeons is critical
The benefits of the relationship—for both mentor and mentee—are well-established. The mentee has doors opened through introductions and advice that may not have occurred otherwise. These greater opportunities speed vertical movement through the ranks and personal development. The mentor’s benefits include career satisfaction and an extended professional network. The mentee’s work also helps keep the mentor at the forefront of his or her specialty.
Within medicine, women have less access to career advice, mentoring, and time for scholarly activities when compared to men. Female physicians are also at greater risk for burnout. In orthopedic surgery, some of the unique issues faced by women are better advised by other women. Family planning around the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery Part 2 oral board examination is not likely to be on many meeting agendas, but a female mentor might be the right person to ask when it comes to this topic.
A female mentor is not a ticket to success in orthopaedic surgery. She cannot guarantee a spot in the match or an interview at her institution. She is, however, an invaluable resource, an inspiration, a level head when applying to residency or fellowship, a personal and professional support when touchy subjects like family and salary arise. She can be someone to remind her mentees what they should already know—that they can and will succeed in orthopedic surgery.
For too long, the culture among women in orthopaedics was hustle, survive, grit your teeth, bite your tongue, and do not discuss how you got there. Something changed at the turn of the millennium, with professional women across different fields.
Madeleine Albright, the first female U.S. Secretary of State, famously said, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
At the turn of the century, it became more evident—or, possibly, more acceptable—that women were working together and supporting each other, instead of competing against one another.
More than ever, women are now “leaning in” and embracing this phenomenon. Companies for women and companies run by women are actual things, and there are even organizations, like “Fairy God Boss,” that help working women get hard questions answered, boasting that they “power a world where women help women.” It may have taken the “lady pods” some time to truly adopt this policy, but now that we have established our presence and accepted this role, our aim is to help newcomers hit the ground running.
There is help available
Finding a mentor early in one’s orthopaedic career is important. Junior women physicians are most at risk for abandoning their career goals before they even realize their potential. If women medical students are not exposed to women in the field, they are less likely to see orthopaedic surgery as an option.
While the relationship between a female mentor and a female mentee is natural, it may be difficult in some settings to find a female mentor. Currently, only 13 percent of orthopaedic residents and 4 percent of AAOS faculty are female. At many institutions, there may be one or no female role models for women entering the field. Resources like the Ruth Jackson Orthopaedic Society’s Mentorship Committee and The Perry Initiative assist medical students and residents in finding mentors.
I cannot change the past, but I can affect the present and, most importantly, influence the future of orthopaedics.
After wandering a circuitous path to my current position, I promised myself that I would not allow those around me to travel the same path. I sought out multiple ways to make the most impact and have made mentorship an integral part of my practice. I am a junior member of the Ruth Jackson Orthopaedic Society’s Mentorship Committee, helping to match mentors to mentees, as well as serving as a mentor myself. I am learning more about the mentor-mentee process while serving on the inaugural Pediatric Orthopaedic Society of North America’s Mentorship Committee as a mentee, receiving guidance from an experienced pediatric orthopaedic surgeon.
Living close to my medical school, I have the opportunity to mentor medical students. Last year, when I was coincidentally gifted an all-female group of mentees, I was inspired to organize my institution’s first Perry Initiative, which is a hands-on outreach program designed to inspire young women toward careers in engineering or orthopaedic surgery.
The New York Times recently published an article about woman mentorship and the “Shalane Flanigan Effect,” which can be summarized as “You serve as a rocket booster for the careers of the women who work alongside you, while catapulting forward yourself.”
While still showing appreciation for the inspiring men mentors in our field, I challenge each female orthopaedic surgeon reading this article to do just that—to propel other women and reward yourself.
Reach out to the Ruth Jackson Orthopaedic Society and become a mentor. Think about starting a Perry Initiative at your institution. Contact your specialty society and volunteer to mentor or start a mentorship program if one does not exist. Seek out your own mentor if you are in a career rut. Start lifting the women around you. Embrace the success that accompanies your everyday efforts and know you are a part of the future of orthopaedic surgery.
Christen M. Russo, MD, is an assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery in the division of pediatric orthopedic surgery, department of orthopedic surgery at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center. She also is an assistant attending pediatric orthopaedic surgeon and quality and patient safety chair in the division of orthopedics department of surgery at the New York-Presbyterian/Brooklyn Methodist Hospital.
Who is Ruth Jackson?
Ruth Jackson, MD, was the first practicing female orthopaedist in the United States. She discovered the rewards of orthopaedics while working with polio patients under the guidance of Arthur Steindler, MD, at the University of Iowa.
In 1932, Dr. Jackson opened her office in Dallas. The following year, the AAOS was founded. All practicing orthopaedic surgeons were allowed to join—except Dr. Jackson. Undaunted, she took and passed the Board exam in 1937, becoming not only the first woman certified by the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery and eventually the first woman admitted to the AAOS.
During her 57 years of active orthopaedic practice, Dr. Jackson published the Cervical Syndrome, which was based on her experience in treating more than 15,000 neck injuries, as well as numerous articles in medical journals. She was chief of the nonschool orthopaedic service at Parkland Hospital in Fairmont, Texas, and established the hospital’s first orthopaedic residency. She was invited to speak at medical society meetings in 39 states and several foreign countries.
Dr. Jackson said that she never meant to be famous. She just did her work and “paid attention to the little things.” The orthopaedic community mourned her passing in 1994. She was 91 years old.
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