Breaking Into an Old Boys' Club
Date: June 1, 2009
During her seven years as a neurosurgery resident, Violette Recinos has frequently been typecast. “I’ll walk into a patient’s room with a medical student who is a man,” says Recinos, “and the patient will assume the student is the doctor and I’m the nurse.
“It’s not a big deal.” In fact, it’s a logical assumption. Women neurosurgeons are a rarity—only 6 percent of all neurosurgeons in the United States. In neurology, women account for a slightly larger fraction, but still only about 22 percent.
Several factors have kept women away from these specialties. An entrenched “old boys’ club” mentality is one factor, says George Jallo, residency director for the Department of Neurosurgery. But lifestyle factors—especially long work hours that can conflict with raising a family—have also discouraged some women from even trying to join the club.
Johns Hopkins, however, has been especially successful in recent years at attracting women into its neurology and neurosurgery programs. In this year’s senior neurology class, all six residents are women, and the ratio of women in subsequent years is significantly higher than the national average. In neurosurgery, three of 21 residents are women—a minority, but more than in most other neurosurgery residencies.
What’s drawn women to these programs?
Recinos knew she would be only the third woman to enter the Hopkins neurosurgery program, but it did not deter her. She had always wanted to be a doctor and loved studying science, especially the science of the brain. Majoring in neuroscience as an undergraduate at Hopkins confirmed her interest, and when, as a medical student she decided to apply to neurosurgery programs, Hopkins was her first choice.
“It had everything I was looking for in a neurosurgery program,” says Recinos. “The residents receive great training by specialists who are at the top of the field. They start operating early in their training, and the research opportunities are limitless. Above all, the faculty and staff are top-notch.”
Recinos and other female residents also say their programs have cultivated an atmosphere of congeniality and respect between faculty and residents that has helped all residents.
“The Hopkins neurology program has been incredibly supportive of women in neurology,” says Karen Hirsch, who is completing her third year in the residency. Faculty, for example, make it a point to include spouses and children in all social events hosted by the program.
Balancing an intensive medical career with the rest of life’s obligations is a challenge, says Hirsch, but she has been encouraged by witnessing the success of the several women who hold senior positions on the Hopkins neurology faculty. Her mentors have included Argye Hillis, who directs the neurology residency program, and Andrea Corse, both of whom are married with children. “They are people I look up to” says Hirsch. “When you see women who do it successfully, it is encouraging.”