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#IlookLikeASurgeon: A hashtag campaign that leaves me cold

#ILookLikeASurgeon first appeared on my timeline a week or so ago. I was interested in it because I’m a surgeon in training. Background: it’s a campaign against gender stereotypes. Piggy-backing on a campaign called #ILookLikeAnEngineer, it aims to show that surgeons are no longer just good-looking white dudes (think: Chris Barnard in the sixties) flanked by hordes of gowned women doing their bidding. It aims to inspire young women to be surgeons, to show them that even if all the senior surgeons they encounter do seem to be dismissive old men, they shouldn’t give up hope, because there’s a new wave coming.

I just haven’t been able to get enthusiastic about the campaign. I got my husband to forward me a recent photograph of myself, arm draped around my toddler, but I never tweeted and hashtagged. I sent a message about it to a friend who is a qualified surgeon, and she sent a message back asking, “What do people think we look like? Goats?” She also never selfied, hashtagged and tweeted. We both self-identify as feminists. We both complain about how sexist our colleagues, bosses and patients can be. We both try to actively discourage sexist talk in the workplace. We both take pride in being knowledgeable, skilled, dependable, female professionals. Why doesn’t #ILookLikeASurgeon get us excited? I’ve spent a week thinking about it.


First off, let me say that I applaud the campaign’s intention to provide role-models to young women who are interested in a surgical career. I believe that good example-setting followed by strong mentorship are imperative in encouraging women to become surgeons. In order to believe they can and want to be surgeons, young women not only need to see older women succeeding at and loving their jobs, but also succeeding at and loving their lives. I’m just not sure that all the smiley women in those hashtagged photographs really provide anything more to that end than a fictional female surgeon like, say, Meredith Grey does.

The photographs are a momentary fist-pump, a cheery “You can do it!”, but say nothing of exactly how they’re doing it. How have the 80-hour weeks impacted on their personal lives? They’re killing it in their scrubs, but when last did they have time to cut the hair hidden by their caps, to exercise their green-draped bodies, or take the kids not pictured to the park? They’re busy performing operations their patients might be eternally grateful for, but don’t they ever fantasise about flinging their bleepers against the wall if they buzz just one more time? These are the questions that young women have, and these are the questions these photographs don’t answer. There is strong evidence that both men and women are rejecting surgery as a specialty for lifestyle reasons. I believe that balance can be achieved, that surgeons can have rewarding careers as well as fulfilling lives outside of those careers, but there is still a lot of work to be done in order to make this possible. No sensible person in 2015 is questioning whether or not women have the ability to be surgeons, but they should be questioning why they would want to. I think a more useful campaign would address these issues. Something along the lines of #IWantToGetSomeSleepEveryDay, #IWantToSeeMyChildrenGrowUp or #IAmMoreThanMyJob.


Secondly, the gender equality aspect. OK, female surgeons have to work harder to be taken seriously. They have to hear male colleagues make jokes about whether or not they’re having unprotected vaginal intercourse (because maternity leave is such pain for everyone). Everyone has to have a good old LOL when the (white, male) anaesthetist complains that he’s feeling outnumbered because the only other male in the operating theatre is the patient. We are bombarded by casual sexism every day. But really, who cares? Everyone is going to shut up when you finish your herniotomy in 12 minutes and the anaesthetist hasn’t even started his chart by the time you pull your gloves off. The way to show people that women make good surgeons isn’t through hashtag slacktivism. It’s by being a good surgeon.

That’s on the gender part of the gender equality aspect. Now let’s talk about the rest of the equality aspect. When are we going to start protesting the fact that apart from isolated pockets, the medical profession on the whole is still grossly unequal? Sure, female undergraduate medical students are now starting to outnumber males, but when will we have a campaign bemoaning how difficult it is to get into medical school without hefty background privilege? The privilege of going to a good school, and growing up in an environment that makes it possible to score in the country’s top percentile of high-school leavers? The privilege of financial backing that makes it possible to spend six years doing a very expensive degree? Female surgeons often complain about being mistaken for nurses, like the word “nurse” is somehow an insult. Professional nursing is a high-skill profession. Why do surgeons still frequently view their scrub nurses as somehow inferior, as servants who are just there to pass and clean instruments, rather than an integral member of the team who also carries the burden of responsibility for a good outcome?

Furthermore, why are the less-skilled nursing ranks still overwhelmingly female? Is emptying bed pans and bathing patients and changing linen still only women’s work? In this particular country we should also be asking ourselves why lower-ranking nurses as well as other hospital support staff — cleaners, porters, security guards, cooks, central sterile services department technicians, and so forth — are almost never white. As a white, female surgeon I might feel tetchy about not being taken as seriously as my male colleagues, but this problem is insignificant when I consider that people (including other doctors) may well think that my black female colleague is anyone from the ward housekeeper to a patient’s relative before it occurs to them that she is a surgeon. It is also insignificant when you consider that my whiteness makes it highly unlikely that I would ever have found myself down in the hospital kitchens washing dishes.

Like most hashtag campaigns, #ILookLikeASurgeon has good intentions, but it just feels like an empty vessel sailing through deep waters it doesn’t attempt to address, even if you do click past the hashtag to the blog posts. I know, it’s tough carving a path through the very male-dominated world that is surgery. I know, we’re doing a difficult thing and we want people to see and acknowledge that. I know, the campaign is meant to “start a conversation” — that internetism we crack out when something causes a bit of a ripple but ultimately effects no change. The campaign isn’t wrong or bad or overtly problematic, but for me it falls pretty flat. I look like a surgeon, but what does that matter? We shouldn’t need a Twitter hashtag to give us validation: being good at our jobs should be enough. Moreover, a narcissistic selfie-campaign shouldn’t fool us into thinking we’re making some kind of grand feminist gesture if it ignores the real hard work we need to do to make surgery a specialty that is truly viable and equal for all.


  • Karen is a South African state doctor, a mom-in-training and a bad runner. These are the three things she writes about most.


  1. jen jen 17 August 2015

    so true – I have such mixed feelings about this. We should encourage women by showing them that anyone can be a surgeon, but surely there are less fluffy ways to do so?
    I do know one thing though. if I have to hear someone comment that they are the only male in the room one more time…how is that possibly relevant?

  2. readerguest readerguest 17 August 2015

    Dear Dr Milford:

    It is true that female leadership is scare not only in surgery but in
    many arenas, gender stereotyping exist in many places in our environment,nationally and internationally. This extends
    to any field: (nursing, corporate world, lawyers, engineers, all medical specialties and even in politics!)

    It is true too, that we as a society should do a better job in supporting careers of both; males and females; as well as their growth to becoming excellent at their job and in their personal development. Balance between life and work is pursued by both genders.

    It is also true that there are many questions still to be answered
    about how to get there and more importantly, how to maintain a successful demanding career and satisfying a family life. But we will never will get to answer these questions if we are not allowed to ask. Raising awareness is
    the first step to encourage change; and solidarity against discrimination in the work place (gender is just a flavor but there are many types of discrimination) is pivotal in achieving fairness.

  3. BrowniePerson BrowniePerson 24 August 2015

    I think a global, say, 3-day strike by all women in non-essential services should do the trick. Kind of hard to organise that via selfie though.

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