Study Shows Many Female Surgeons Consider Career Change If They Become Pregnant During Training


Recent research suggests that female surgeons who become pregnant or bear children while still in training tend to consider switching careers due to a number of reasons, including concerns over working hours and a lack of feasible options for maternity leave.

A total of 347 female surgeons were surveyed, with an average age of 31-years-old and a combined total of 452 pregnancies. According to Reuters, about 86 percent of the surgeons were on a regular work schedule up until the time they gave birth. Approximately two-thirds of the women surveyed admitted that they were concerned their work schedule might have been harmful to their babies.

In an emailed statement, study lead author Dr. Erika Lu Rangel of Brigham and Women’s Hospital said that there were several reasons why the women thought of leaving their field. These included having to work unmodified schedules while pregnant, a lack of satisfactory maternity leave options, inadequate childcare support, a desire for more extensive training on maintaining a proper work-life balance, and the “stigma and fear of loss of reputation” brought about by their becoming pregnant while still in residency.

Issues with maternity leave options were a particularly common issue for the female surgeons who took part in the study, which was published in the journal JAMA Surgery. About 78 percent of the participants said their maternity leave lasted only six weeks or less, while a similar percentage of women simply said that they weren’t satisfied with the duration of their leave.

While the Reuters report did not delve into the stigma linked with becoming pregnant during surgical training, a 2012 study detailed in Physician’s Weeklysuggested that this is “still largely prevalent” in modern times, as fellow residents and faculty members often act discouragingly among surgeons who become pregnant or give birth during their training.

All in all, 135 out of the 347 female surgeons, or about 39 percent, admitted they had “strongly” considered dropping out of training as a result of the challenges they faced as would-be mothers. The same reasons drove another 102 women, or 30 percent of the participants, to say that it’s not a good idea for female medical students to enter surgical training.

“[The findings] emphasize that pregnancy and childcare support may have a significant influence on the decision to pursue or maintain a career in surgery,” Rangel commented.

“To attract and retain the most talented candidates, surgical leaders must address the challenges facing new mothers in residency.”

Many of the female surgeons surveyed in the new study weren't happy with the maternity leave options they were offered.Featured image credit: CoffeemillShutterstock

While the study showed that a lot of female surgeons in training find it challenging to balance motherhood and residency, it was also noted that many women in the field are able to overcome those challenges. According to Dr. Kelly McCoy of the University of Pittsburgh, who offered a commentary on the research, proper mentorship is one tool that women can use to their advantage when trying to balance their roles as mothers with their surgical training.

Despite the above commentary stressing that it is possible to juggle motherhood and surgical training, Medical University of South Carolina researcher Dr. Constance Guille, who did not take part in the research, said in an email to Reuters that the findings nonetheless highlight the reasons why female surgeons are still “underrepresented” across the United States.

“If we want to close this gender gap, medical institutions will need to make an initial investment to support mothers in surgical training with adequate maternity leave, daycare with appropriate hours, lactation facilities, etc,” Guille wrote.