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Women Doctors Snub the Surgical Profession, Calling it a Macho Club

Historically, women medical students have chosen not to become surgeons, a specialty dominated by men. Women, it was said, were unwilling to put in the long hours. But now, a study by researchers at the University of Vermont says women choose other medical specialties in part because of the aggressively masculine personalities of surgeons.

In the operating room, it's hard to tell who are the men and who are the women under masks and surgical gowns. But when the masks come off, it is clear.

In the United States, 85 percent of surgeons are male.

Dr. Lisa Boyle is a surgeon at Washington Hospital Center, the capital's largest hospital. "So we're not proportionately, I think, attracting as many women as we should be, although the sheer numbers are clearly heading in the right direction."

In the 1950s, women were typically housewives. They first entered the medical profession as nurses.

Today, 50 percent of American medical students are women. But most women doctors choose pediatrics and general practice over surgery.

The study found that women doctors are less likely than men to turn away from surgery because of the heavy workload. However, women said the "surgical personality" was a factor.

Dr. Boyle adds, "I think surgeons have historically been perceived to be arrogant, self involved, less compassionate, less likely to listen, to communicate, perhaps not quite as well as women."

Male surgeons dominate the field -- both in numbers and in leadership positions -- in many developed countries. In Russia and the former Eastern Bloc, women are a larger percentage but still a minority.

Dr. Boyle says patients could have a big impact on stamping out what some call the "macho" personality of surgeons.

"Many patients have decided now that they not only want their doctors to be skilled, they want them to be able to talk to them... their concerns are being heard".

In the meantime, women surgeons hope their growing numbers will help mute the aggressive male environment they work in.