When Nita Ahuja was a medical student in the early 1990s, she discovered her passion for surgical oncology. She was drawn to a Johns Hopkins residency combining her field of interest with general surgery. The program offered just a single open spot. The only problem, she told her mentor, was that there were just a handful of women in surgery. To her knowledge, there were only a few at other institutions.
“I asked my mentor, ‘How do I do surgery with no women there?’” she remembers. “He said, ‘Just go do it.’”
Ahuja, whose parents emigrated from India to the U.S. when she and her sister were children, has since risen through the ranks to become a full professor of surgery and chief of the Division of Surgical Oncology. She was hired to come on faculty by Julie Freischlag, who became the first female director of a surgical department at Johns Hopkins and also one of a handful of women directors at that time. But, she says, other female surgeons and those interested in the specialty are still sparse.
Current statistics show that approximately 14 percent of female medical school graduates choose to go into surgical specialties, compared with about 33 percent of men. Even fewer choose Ahuja’s specialty of surgical oncology. For those who do go into surgery, residencies typically require about a decade of training beyond medical school, most of which falls during a woman’s prime childbearing years.
Ahuja notes that policies have slowly evolved to allow female surgical residents to take six weeks of maternity leave and still complete their programs. Faculty development guidelines that she worked on at Johns Hopkins have helped eliminate the “boys’ club” environment, in which successful male surgeons rarely shared the paths to success beyond other men. Her recommendations lay out clear road maps that surgeons of any gender need to follow for promotions. However, she says, women in surgery still face unique challenges—from balancing family needs to finding mentors and role models of the same gender—that the current professional climate doesn’t address.
To address obstacles and to celebrate the progress female surgeons have made, Ahuja and her colleagues, including biomedical researcher and Vice Dean for Faculty Janice Clements, recently organized a dinner called Women in Surgery at Hopkins, or WISH.
While it’s usually difficult to get surgeons together due to their intense professional responsibilities, Ahuja says, nearly everyone who was invited from The Johns Hopkins Hospital, as well as the affiliates from Suburban Hospital and Sibley Memorial Hospital, attended the event, which the organizers hope will be the first of many like it. The event also celebrated the recent leadership roles that women surgeons have assumed under the leadership of the department’s current director, Robert Higgins, who has supported a culture of equality and diversity. For instance, three of the Department of Surgery’s seven division chiefs are now women.
Between providing support for balancing professional and personal lives and toasting the recent landmark of reaching 200 female full professors across the Johns Hopkins enterprise, the 30 attendees forged new connections and identified mentors.
“Our system is so big that many of us don’t even know about each other, so there’s no chance to connect,” Ahuja says. “Our main goal was to help find and support each other.”