Gender Bias Experiences of Female Surgical Trainees

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Medical schools now average approximately 50% female students, yet a disproportionate number of women continue to choose nonsurgical over surgical specialties. Once in training, studies indicate that pervasive gender stereotypes, sexism and harassment negatively affect female surgeons. The aim of this study is to describe female surgeons’ experiences with gender bias and microaggressions in the workplace during residency and fellowship training, and understand if differences exist in the experiences of trainees in male-dominant vs female-dominant surgical specialties.


A mixed methods approach was used to explore the experiences of female surgical trainees. Participants were recruited from all surgical disciplines at an academic center. Initially, focus groups were used to explore themes that trainees face related to gender bias. A trained moderator conducted all focus groups, which were audio recorded and transcribed. Qualitative analysis of de-identified transcripts was performed to identify emerging themes. We then created an online survey using the validated 44-question Sexist Microaggression Experiences and Stress Scale to assess frequency and psychologic impact of these events with additional questions developed from the focus groups. The survey was sent to all female residents and fellows at one academic institution.


University of New Mexico Hospital, a tertiary care academic medical center.


Fifteen female surgical trainees participated in focus groups. Thirty-three female surgical trainees participated in the online survey.


Two focus groups including 15 female trainees were conducted, revealing 4 themes: Exclusion, Adaptation, Increased effort, and Development of Resilience Strategies. All participants had experienced gender bias or discrimination during medical school or surgical training. The quantitative survey had a 66% response rate (33/50 female trainees). Significant differences were found in the experience of female trainees in male-dominant vs female-dominant specialties, with those in male-dominant fields often reporting more frequent, severe, and stressful microaggression experiences. When describing how gender bias would affect their future in medicine, trainees in male-dominant specialties were more likely to report that due to gender bias, they “may leave medicine/retire early” (33% vs 6%, p = 0.040) and that they “would not recommend my profession to trainees or family members” (40% vs 6%, p = 0.015).”


Female surgical trainees continue to experience gender bias. A culture of sexism leads to physical and social adaptations to fit into the role of surgeon. Participants expressed significant effort to sustain this level of adaptation, leading to fatigue and creation of resilience mechanisms. The environment in which a trainee operates (male-dominant vs female-dominant) significantly impacts their experience. Those experiencing more bias were less likely to recommend their specialty and reported plans to leave medicine earlier. Culture change across institutions and system-level interventions are necessary to create meaningful and sustainable change that improves the experience of female surgical trainees.