MENTAL HEALTH

Stereotyping makes life harder for young female surgeons

Women in surgical training programs who feel that those around them endorse negative stereotypes about female doctors have poorer psychological health than others who do not feel a "stereotype threat," a new study found.

Not all women perceived a stereotype threat. And such perceptions did not affect the mental health of young women in non-surgical specialties, the researchers found.

Perceiving that others have a negative stereotype about you "is a general phenomenon that affects all sorts of people and circumstances, including white men doing athletic activities and ethnic minorities in academic achievement," said lead author Dr. Arghavan Salles of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

"Stereotype threat is present in all fields, but the negative consequences appear to be less in other specialties than in surgery," Salles told Reuters Health by phone.

In 2010 and 2011, the researchers surveyed male and female doctors in 14 medical residency programs, nine of which were surgical specialties. About 380 residents responded to the surveys, which included measures of psychological general well being and of professional burnout.

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Some of the specialties, such as pediatrics, and obstetrics and gynecology, tend to have more women. Others, such as radiology, tend to be more male-dominated.

Women made up slightly more than half of the residents responding from non-surgical programs but only accounted for about a third of the surgeons who responded.

The residents answered three questions about stereotype threat, assessing their opinions of the expectations of residents in their program, faculty in their department, and the general public. Optional answers included "they expect women to be much better than men (at my profession)," "they expect men to be much better than women (at my profession)," or a range of options in between.

Female surgical residents with higher degrees of stereotype perception had poorer psychological health than those with lower degrees. Among male surgical residents, and among men and women in other specialties, there was no relationship between stereotype perception and well being, the researchers reported in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons.

The culture of medicine as a whole, particularly the training environment, should take stereotype threat into account, said Dr. Liselotte N. Dyrbye of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, who was not part of the new study.

Having more women in leadership positions who can serve as role models for female medical students would have a positive impact, she told Reuters Health by phone.

Feeling valued is important to everyone, Dyrbye added.

And, she pointed out, "Burnt out physicians are more likely to deliver suboptimal care and have a higher risk of leaving the profession."

"It's important for people to know that stereotype threat is a phenomenon that has been found over and over again in other contexts," Salles said.

This study did not assess actual stereotypes that people hold, only the extent to which people think others around them believe the stereotype, she said.

"It affects the experience of training to become a physician," she said.

Researchers are working on interventions to "buffer" people against stereotype threat and preserve their performance, but the problem hasn't been solved yet, she said.

In the meantime, she said, measuring actual stereotypes in the population could be helpful, if the results find that fewer people believe in them than some female surgeons think. Encouraging more women to enter male-dominated medical professions would help as well.