An Interview with Dr Kim Peters

In Issue #2 of Hot Chicks with Big Brains, Art Director Anna Apuli spoke with Dr Kim Peters and Dr Courtney von Hippel about the effects of gender bias on women in the workplace. We caught up with Kim to learn more about the Women in Surgery vodcast, how it was made, and the challenges faced in the process. Issue #2 is well-and-truly sold out in print form! However, we do have digital copies of back orders, so head here to nab yourself a copy!

Can you describe the moment you knew you wanted to start the project?

As a PhD student, I was always very keen to do work that would be relevant – and of interest – to people in the real world. One of the first research meetings that I had as a postdoctoral researcher was with a female neurosurgeon, Ms. Helen Fernandes, who wanted to get a better understanding of the reasons that fewer women pursued a career in surgery. The more I learned about surgery through my conversations with Helen and some of her wonderful colleagues, the more fascinated I was about what motivated medical students to choose it as a career, and what sustained them through the very long and arduous 8 to 10 years it takes to complete their training. It’s also a great context to exploring gender dynamics at work, as we have quite strong gender stereotypes about surgeons (think of the classic surgeon riddle).

After several years of research with surgeons, we felt that we had a pretty good idea of the major psychological factors that played a role in women’s reluctance to pursue surgery as a career.

The vodcast was our attempt to turn this understanding into an intervention that could boost women’s motivation to consider surgery as a career.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced while working on the project?

Well, getting financial support for projects of this kind is always a challenge. But, once we had sourced that, there was so much willingness on the part of male and female surgeons to contribute to the project. We were very lucky to have strong support from the Royal College of Surgeons in England and from many individual surgeons who were enthusiastic about our project.

Can you tell me a little more about the making of the vodcast?

There were several stages to making the vodcast. First, Michelle (my collaborator) and I sat down and crafted questions that we thought would tap into the major psychological factors that are implicated in choosing a career in surgery and that would elicit responses that would be inspirational. Our next task was finding a film production company who understood what we were trying to do, both in terms of content and aesthetic. The next task was getting surgeons to talk to us! Through our network of contacts, we were able to schedule interviews with numerous surgeons (both male and female) in London. At this point, Michelle and I were able to stand back and let the film producers get on with it.

Which aspects of a surgical career, in your opinion, are most important to focus on if we want to encourage more women to pursue one?

Our major finding is that whether or not people are motivated to pursue (and stick with) a career is very much influenced by their feeling that they will fit in with members of that career.

In the case of surgeons, female medical students would look at surgical consultants, who are predominantly male, and feel that they were very different; male medical students, in contrast, would feel like they were quite similar.

Dynamics like these mean that any occupation is going to do rather well at attracting people who look like those already in position; attracting a more diverse applicant group requires making an effort to show that all kinds of people are welcome and will be able to succeed.

Do you believe that certain practices currently in place might need to be altered/adapted in order to accommodate women (particularly those with/planning on having children)?

There are lots of pragmatic issues associated with childbirth and parenting if you want to be a surgeon, including long working hours and being on call.

However, the culture is changing – slowly – so that there is more flexibility for women (and men) to fit their training around their life.

What’s been the greatest thing to happen as a result of the project so far?

The enthusiastic responses that we’ve had from medical students and surgeons who’ve seen the vodcast. It’s great to know that we are making a difference to women all over the world.

What’s next for the project?

We’re still working with data that we collected from surgeons, so our focus at the moment is getting papers published.


Answers by Dr Kim Peters

Featured Image by Anna Apuli (Crapuli)

Questions and Edits by Emma Kate Lewis

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