October 31st, 2009
11:59 PM ET

Another day in the Frontal lobe

Editor’s Note: On Monday on AC360°, we’ll look at the gender gap at the office. Dr. Katrina Firlik will be part of our panel discussing the changing roles of women at work. Don't miss this special report at 10 p.m. ET.

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/HEALTH/10/15/organ.transplant.explainer/art.transplant.gi.jpg
caption="Women make up only 5 percent of all neurosurgeons."]

Dr. Katrina Firlik
Neurosurgeon & Author

I remember the scene well. I’m being interviewed for a position in a neurosurgery residency program. I’m sitting across the table from two senior neurosurgeons, one friendly and talkative, the other reserved. I’ve anticipated the common questions and I’m armed with quick responses. Why did you choose neurosurgery? What are your strengths? Your weaknesses? Can you explain the research you’ve done? Where do you see yourself in ten years? The friendly one is asking all the questions and I feel like I’m acing them. The quiet one stares at me.

I sense the end of the interview and there’s a long pause. The quiet one finally pipes up: “How do you know you’ll be able to handle a surgical drill?” Now there’s one I hadn’t anticipated. And there’s one I doubt he asked the guy with the crew cut before me. Think…think. I feign nonchalance and attempt spontaneous wit: “Well…if you accept me into the program I’ll show you how I can use a drill.” The friendly one cracks a smile.

As a woman in a male-dominated field (only about 5 percent of neurosurgeons are women) there were moments like this, but they were actually rare. In my book, Another Day in the Frontal Lobe: A Brain Surgeon Exposes Life on the Inside, I don’t focus on the “woman in surgery” issue as much as some readers hope. Truthfully, there just wasn’t much there. But that’s progress!

It was a different story for the generations of women who became surgeons before me, but that’s not a story that I can tell, and they are to thank for clearing the way.

The best advice I can offer to women entering a male dominated field is this: use humor to your advantage. For those rare awkward moments, humor can often be more powerful and transformative than protest. And, I have to add, it’s far more enjoyable.

By the way, a surgical drill doesn’t require much muscle. Grace is more important. I ended up working with that quiet neurosurgeon and we became friends over the drone of a drill.

To find more from Katrina Firlik’s, visit her web site here.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Opinion • Women's Issues
soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. Ani

    It is difficult to be a woman in a male-dominated world, especially if the woman is lower on the food chain.

    November 1, 2009 at 2:09 am |
  2. Dr Zaglossus

    My answer would have been that I'd already used one for stereotactic implantation of anterior horn explants into rat brains. But, I decided not to go for neurosurgery (or neurology) despite prior research.

    I was actually lucky enough to have been on Olga Jonasson's service with some really stellar surgeons and not too bad physicians. (Can you tell I became a flea rather than a blade?) And, there was a neurosurgery faculty member who also happened to be a woman – even back then.

    More to the discussion, notice that although there are now women presidents of major universities, there is still a dearth of tenured women in academic medicine, just as there are still quite the minority of women in the highest executive offices of the major corporations. (I applaud the various journalists restraint during the discussion of Obama's "boys club" at the inclusion of Larry Sommers as the chief economic adviser who was pressured into stepping down as President of Harvard (with a woman successor) for his remarks that women do not have what it takes to make it in the sciences.

    October 31, 2009 at 7:11 pm |
  3. RoseProphecy

    Women should be more involved in creating balance of powers in America and in the world and put an end to the Global Crisis stemming from Power Imblanace of multidimensions!

    October 31, 2009 at 5:17 pm |
  4. nancy marshall

    We really never think of all the many things that have gone on behind the scenes for years when you go in to have any kind of surgery. Neurology is another story...tough!!!! I can't imagine the dedication in getting thru school, internship then being on your own and operating on a human being who has his/her every hope and dream on what you do or don't do in your hands. This would be tough for anyone man or women but really tough for a women. I believe we think of doctors as someone that "just knows what to do" but truth of the matter they are human being and the have emotions and it has to be tough. I, personally do not feel that way with the neurologist and neurosurgeon I use which are men. I would not have a problem using a female neurosurgeon, there are just not any around. My doctors are both Godly men and my surgeon prays with his team before he operates on his patients. My neurologist has prayed with me before a procedure to help comfort me from fear...so they know they are not alone in what they are doing and that it easier when I have had to have surgery.
    I do not think any doctor can do surgery after surgery on his own, that he must look to a higher power to strengthen him and provide him with the knowledge he/she must have to do the right thing...male or female!!

    October 31, 2009 at 11:50 am |
  5. ploie

    Some great topic in this female-all-over population but females-not-quite-there-yet situation. This topic brings to mind a few career-decison-related conversations with someone close. She was sure and she will be impacted by this.
    It's good that you are also bringing it out in the open. Bring it on and let it be worn to a good realization – to the changing fortunes of women.
    It's a beautiful world, everyone should be at an equal footing, gender wise.

    October 31, 2009 at 10:14 am |