Episode 20. The Hands of a Woman: Surgery Spotlight

In today’s medical schools, half of the students are female. In surgical residencies, one-fourth of the residents are female. Of those female surgical residents, one-fourth of them will drop out from burnout. Women pursuing surgery today are faced with numerous challenges and obstacles, but yet they persist. And it was no different for the millennia of surgeons before them. From Agnodice fighting for her right to practice in Athens to Loyse Bourgeois becoming one of the best surgeons in the 17th century France to laws all but banning women from the profession, female surgeons have jumped right, left, over, and under obstacles for as long as they have served in the profession. Join us in this episode on women in surgery to learn about some of the influential women in the history of the profession and how they carried on, even when everyone was telling them not to. Then discuss with us the different disparities women face today in the profession and how our very own Alesha feels about potentially joining the specialty one day!

Feminist Corner:

Did you notice a trend of what types of surgeons women were throughout history? Why do you think of this? Does this relate to typical female surgeons today? (Hint: there were 2 main types) 

What does this story tell us about mentorship and how does it apply to your journey in medicine (or whatever other profession pertains to you)?

Listen to the episode, discuss these questions with friends and family, let us know what you think!

Show Notes:

In this episode we are discussing the relationship between women and the field of surgery, specifically what it means to be a female surgeon. But before we get into that, it is first important to distinguish the difference between a surgeon and a physician. Despite these professions being under the same realm of medicine today, the same cannot be said for history. For a long time, the professions were extremely different and separate from one another. Even the Hippocratic Oath, the oath that physicians take to do no harm, speaks of not using the knife because they are not professionals in this area. And this separation of physicians and surgeon was very important for women in surgery, as the development of women in both fields take different paths. 

Starting from the beginning, women were depicted in ancient art and myths of performing operations on soldiers, gods, goddesses, women, kings etc. But of course, women as surgeons were not always the case in actuality. For example, in Greece, an Athenian woman named Agnodice traveled to Alexandria to become a surgeon, after being told she couldn’t, and brought her practice back to Athens, paving the way for women after her to become surgeons. 

As history moved forward into the middle ages, women were continuously pushed out of the profession. Numerous laws were put in place that required additional testing for women, specific familial connections, or regulations on membership in surgical organizations. By the end of the Renaissance Era, it was only through charity work that women were allowed to practice surgery. And through this limited position, women continued to persist. Because throughout the past two centuries, women in surgery have made great strides. Women were attending medical school and surgery programs, joining the military to serve in the World Wars, admitted to exclusive societies, and starting their own surgical programs and hospitals. 

Today, women are half of all medical school students but only one fourth of surgical residents are women. And of those twenty five percent, twenty five percent of them are predicted to drop the residency due to burn out. The path to surgery is hard, but for women there are extra obstacles that often stand in their way. A few disparities that contribute to the low numbers for women in surgery are listed below. 

  • Family: Surgical residency is demanding and does not leave much time for personal life, making it hard for women to always have a family unless they have the necessary support systems.
  • Lack of Mentorship: When you are in a position that needs extra mentorship to reach your goals, it is even harder to find said mentorship sometimes, making it even more important. 
  • Stereotypes of surgeons: Surgeons are typically viewed in a ‘male’ light, pushing ‘female’ characteristics out, even though your gender has no influence on how your personality aligns with the profession. Additionally, female surgeons are not given the same respect as their male counterparts. 


Aggarwal, A. (2010, February 01). The Evolving Relationship between Surgery and Medicine. Retrieved from https://journalofethics.ama-assn.org/article/evolving-relationship-between-surgery-and-medicine/2010-02

Haskins, J. (2019, July 15). Where are all the women in surgery? Retrieved from https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/where-are-all-women-surgery

McLemore, E. C., Ramamoorthy, S., Peterson, C. Y., & Bass, B. L. (2012). Women in surgery: bright, sharp, brave, and temperate. The Permanente journal, 16(3), 54–59.

Pastena, J. A. (1993). Women in Surgery. Archives of Surgery, 128(6), 622. doi:10.1001/archsurg.1993.01420180020004

Stephens, E. H., Heisler, C. A., Temkin, S. M., & Miller, P. (2020). The Current Status of Women in Surgery. JAMA Surgery, 155(9), 876. doi:10.1001/jamasurg.2020.0312

The Evolving Surgeon Image. (2018). AMA Journal of Ethics, 20(5), 492-500. doi:10.1001/journalofethics.2018.20.5.mhst1-1805

The surprising history of women in surgery. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.aoa.org.au/for-patients/diversity/articles/the-surprising-history-of-women-in-surgery

Like the episode? Send us your thoughts and questions!

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