All-Female Surgical-Mission Team Inspires Women to Mentor Women

All-Female Surgical-Mission Team Inspires Women to Mentor Women

(Reuters Health) – Women who served on an all-female surgical mission helping children in Morocco returned home inspired to mentor women in their own hospitals, a new study finds.

“If more of these interventions are done, I think you’ll see a greater number of women rising to leadership positions and a greater number of women being drawn into these fields by the visibility of women in these environments,” Dr. Naikhoba Munabi, the study’s lead author and a plastic surgery resident at USC Medical Center in Los Angeles, said in a phone interview.

Operation Smile arranged the female-only cleft-surgery mission to Oujda, Morocco to celebrate women’s contributions to the nonprofit on International Women’s Day in 2020. Over the past five years, more than 60% of the group’s roughly 6,000 volunteers have been women.

To determine if interacting in a female-only group would prove empowering, Dr. Munabi and her colleagues administered anonymous surveys to the 95 volunteers, 70 of them medical volunteers, from 23 countries at the beginning and end of the Morocco mission.

Volunteers included surgeons, anesthesiologists, pediatricians, nurses, speech pathologists, dentists, medical records specialists and biomedical engineers.

Dr. Munabi and her colleagues correctly hypothesized that women working exclusively with other women would be able to connect with new mentors and foster longstanding relationships, according to the report in PLOS Global Public Health.

Nearly all the volunteers wanted to mentor others, especially women. But the surveys showed that women, regardless of how rich or poor their home countries are, struggle to get as much mentorship as they want. Almost every one of the volunteers, 98%, reported receiving insufficient mentorship, and 95% preferred female mentors.

Fifteen of the volunteers had never been mentored before, and 11 received mentorship for the first time in Morocco. All the volunteers established professional contacts they planned to continue, and all reported feeling empowered to mentor women at home.

Dr. Jyoti S. Mathad applauded the research team’s effort to examine ways to increase mentorship of women in what she called the “particularly male-dominated” field of surgery. Dr. Mathad, who is the co-director of the Women in Global Health Research Initiative at Weill Cornell Medical College, was not involved with the study.

“Improving gender balance not only helps institutions better reflect the populations they serve but also improves health outcomes,” Dr. Mathad told Reuters Health by email. “Increasing same-gendered mentorship, including peer mentorship, has repeatedly been shown to help women thrive in academic settings and should be systematically incorporated into healthcare training globally.”

Dr. Mathad’s initiative has identified numerous barriers facing women in global health, from discrimination and safety concerns to disproportionate caregiving responsibilities and a lack of mentorship.

“Creating scenarios where women can work together can help overcome many of these challenges,” she said.

Though the majority of healthcare workers are women, previous studies have shown that fewer hold higher-skilled jobs. In a 2019 study led by Dr. Mathad, 53% of female healthcare workers in the U.S., Haiti, Tanzania and India reported that gender discrimination prevented them from getting promoted.

Women will rarely, if ever, be able to work in exclusively all-female healthcare environments and don’t need to, Dr. Munabi said. “What women do need,” she said, “is the opportunity to engage and collaborate with other women.”

She believes women should be encouraged to fill the 18 million healthcare jobs deemed necessary to provide surgical care to the world’s population. “If you want to get people into the field, you have to create space for them,” she said.

Dr. Mathad noted that 60%, a higher proportion than seen previously, of the healthcare workers in the study reported mentoring or having been mentored by women.

“This sample is tilted, in that the participants came from hospitals that empowered them to travel abroad in service of others,” she said. “Still, it’s an encouraging sign that female leadership – a critical factor in retaining and promoting women in global health – could be on the rise.”

SOURCE: PLOS Global Public Health, March 2, 2022.

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