When I was a kid in the 1970s, my mother didn’t just encourage me to dream big. She encouraged me to dream bigger.
When I was about 10 years old, I told my mom that I wanted to work in medicine. Although she was a full-time homemaker — with no professional medical background — she urged me to expand my vision as much as possible. I like to think I took her advice to heart. I became a neurosurgeon. I wish more women had mothers like mine, because my field needs more women in this rewarding, complex and male-dominated field.
We need gender diversity because that diversity, in any field, strengthens it. Thankfully, we’ve achieved it in medical schools, where women make up just over 50% of medical students. But we’re not there yet in neurosurgery, where women make up a little more than 8% of the workforce. (And it isn’t just neurosurgery that faces this lack of representation. Other highly specialized fields face this, too. In interventional cardiology, women make up only about 4% of the workforce.)
Barriers to the field take several forms.
Let’s talk about where the unconscious bias is. It’s present when people talk about my job’s "physical demands" — providing cover to those who mistakenly think women don’t have the stamina to be surgeons. And maybe we should own up to what the "work-life balance" conversation really means. I don’t know many people, let alone women, whose personal and professional lives are beautifully balanced — though we’re trying to achieve it, every day, anyway. Experience has shown me that it’s a conversation that often ends with professional women facing two options: taking on more responsibilities or thinking they can’t "have it all."
Training to become a neurosurgeon is arduous: undergraduate work, medical school and a seven-year neurosurgery residency program usually followed by a fellowship. Of course, there is also continuing medical education, professional meetings and research. It’s not for everyone.
The problem demands grassroots changes: Children are learning more about STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects and are participating in experiential programs that expose them to our world. This approach is making an impact. I hear from girls as young as 13 who want to shadow me to learn more about becoming a neurosurgeon. And the daughters of two of my women colleagues have penned a children’s book called, "I Want to be a Neurosurgeon."
Exposing children to these subjects and professional options does more than inspire girls. It helps normalize what girls can do in the eyes of the boys next to them. When these future men consult with these future women neurosurgeons either as patients or as colleagues, it should be a common, typical experience.
I remember my medical school graduation, when my mother was delighted at my accomplishment. It’s been gratifying and essential to have her support — and that of my whole family — as I’ve moved through the different stages of my career.
This support is on my mind as I observe and foster my own daughter’s interests and passions. My daughter knows that I’m fully behind her as she finds her way, supporting her as she sees potential roadblocks in her own path — and knocks them down. Thanks for showing me the way, Mom.
Happy Mother’s Day!
Dr. Jamie S. Ullman is director of neurotrauma at Northwell Health’s Institute for Neurology and Neurosurgery at North Shore University Hospital.