What it's like to be a woman working in a man's world...

10.12.20 12:59 PM Comment(s) By Adrienne Towsen

"We had a woman in our program...( long pause)...once." I literally heard this comment during one of my interviews for an orthopedic surgery residency. It can be a little overwhelming and frankly scary to decide on a career path which is so male dominated. I went to medical school with an open mind, but I was very interested in orthopedics right from the start. I had been an athlete in high school and college, and I had a knee injury while playing lacrosse in college which required surgery. My surgeon was our college team physician and an alum of the school. He ultimately took me under his wing and allowed me to spend time observing in the office and the operating room with him. After going through my own surgery and recovery as well as this special time shadowing my surgeon, I knew this was the field for me. As I mentioned, I tried to keep my options open while I was in school, but there was nothing that could change my desire to go into orthopedic surgery, not even the fact that less than 5% of all orthopedic surgeons at that time were female. Even as of 2019, while the speciality has become more popular and inviting for women, it still remains the specialty with the lowest proportion of female residents. 

I ultimately matched in a residency program which I would classify as "female friendly". I was the first woman in the program which I began in 1998, and I  was the only woman there during my whole 5 years. It took a little getting used to at first. I was determined to succeed, and I think it can be very motivating to be the underdog. It's not as if anyone was expecting me to fail, but there was a sense, and maybe I brought it on myself, that I might not be able to handle some of the work in the same way a man could. Some of what we do in orthopedics requires good old fashioned strength, and most of the guys who go into the specialty are former athletes with an obvious advantage. I was determined not to let that discourage me, and I worked as hard as I could right along with all of my male counterparts. I was "the little sister" of the crew, and I think once they saw I could hold my own, they respected me and tried not to treat me differently. I was very fortunate to work with a wonderful group of residents and attending surgeons during those 5 years. I always tried to manage on my own. Asking for help, in my mind, would be considered a sign of weakness, but when I needed it (like toward the end of my two pregnancies) my co-residents were there to support me.

At our end of the year resident graduation in 2000 pregnant with my first

At that same banquet 2 years later pregnant with my second

And some of us returning to the same banquet a few years after my graduation, still as close as ever to this great group I trained with

I graduated from the program in 2003, and it was an incredible accomplishment for me. I started out married with no children and ended the program as the mom of two in the process of getting a divorce. I had to dig deep to find the motivation to keep going and follow the plan of moving on to a fellowship. I was once again the first and only woman in my sports medicine fellowship. I was now used to being the only one, and it didn't seem so overwhelming anymore. I still felt like maybe I had to work just a little bit harder to "prove myself", but I'm not sure if this was just my perception or the true reality of the situation. Orthopedics is often referred to as a "boy's club", and it is certainly a specialty filled with many ex-jocks with huge egos. It is also filled with many wonderful guys (and a few gals too) who are great doctors and mentors. I was very lucky to move from one great program into the next and then ultimately find myself as the first and only woman in an amazing private practice where I have been for the past 14 years. My practice then joined a bigger group several years ago, and for the first time in my career, I am no longer the only woman. 

So, it doesn't even bother me now when my medical assistant brings a patient to the exam room and says "she'll be right with you", that the response can often be "she??... I just assumed I was seeing a man" 🤦🏻‍♀️  How is it possible in 2020 that they didn't "google me" before they made the appointment?!?!  Or when I have just spent 20 minutes explaining to Mr. Jones every detail of the shoulder surgery he needs, only to hear "so you actually do the surgery??" Ummm...YES!!  So while I have navigated this journey as a female in orthopedics always feeling accepted by my peers, it's interesting to see the public's reaction sometimes, even today. I think this continues to motivate me to work just a little bit harder than some of my male counterparts. I am not saying it's right to have that sense of some degree of inequality, but it's hard to completely erase it in such a male dominated field. There are of course many other occupations like this where women are a minority, and I think it makes us extra driven to succeed.  

My advice... let the perceived inequality drive you to be the best you can be, and never give up. So here I am amongst some of my fabulous partners as a "Top Doc" in Philadelphia magazine.😉

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