Thursday, September 17, 2009

How women go down in surgery - in the former eastern bloc

I have been to the first women in surgery seminar at an international meeting of surgeons in the former eastern bloc. I perhaps set an unfortunate precedent by being naive enough to think I would just be plugging in my laptop and away I went. By the time I'd discovered the little men round the back who orchestrate it all (cf Wizard of Oz) whose English was not up to my question as to whether open office would do, I had to hand them my stick to translate into the dreaded powerpoint and disappear. My talk was not, thankfully, in the main hall with 2000 people but in the little session right at the back of this vast circular building (concrete, "a landmark in the history of reinforced concrete architecture", hilarious) but wasn't hilarious when my talk came up all - well, slightly - mucked up on powerpoint. I had left it too late to fuss about the line spacing. After all that preparation! And it had strangely lost all the photos of the kids. Had to hotfoot it, racing round this concrete famous structure to my talk at the back.

so, not a complete disaster but a really rubbish beginning. Got there, late, and the introduction was in full swing - but not in English. She put me straight on, and I talked ok, in English of course, without notes, apart from forgetting the name of one of the women surgeons in a photo - I had been going to talk about her but couldn't as forgot her name. complete blank. so had to move on.

Winced through the crap layout of 3 slides and the one of my partner looking official in his work photo (in none of my own does he look presentable like that) but without the one next to it of the
kids and finished it ok.

The plan was to have 4 talks in English followed by a question session. I had been told that there was some antagonism regarding any meeting specifically for women in surgery in this country from other women surgeons. This I have also met in the UK. But it isn't about the women who are already established and happy they are on the same level as the men. It is about encouraging normal female medical graduates - not crazy extreme workaholics but normal types who want a family, some work-life balance AND an interesting job, to consider surgery. I think. So I was looking forward to the discussion panel that I was expecting to sit on.

First there was a good talk by an Austrian surgeon, who had looked at the German speaking countries' proportion of female surgeons. They are better than us, anyway, with some highlights in paediatric surgery (50%!) and plastics. What are they doing right? Rest of surgical specialties all around 10-15% , with the same failure to increase numbers like the non-surgical specialties, so nothing spectacular. A talk on the history of women's involvement with the foundation of the Mayo clinic followed, then we had a crazy talk by a woman in black and white dogtooth suit with bright red hair which was all not in English either - so probably not crazy at all, I didn't have a lot to judge it by - and all rhymed but no idea what it was apart from obviously quite humorous.

This was followed by a quiet girl who'd interviewed some of the country's women surgeons (8 of them) and presented, battling somewhat against the wound-up now-raucous audience, her findings including quotes like "private life has to take second place to professional life, that is the way it is in surgery". I personally wanted to take issue with this, but there was time to talk at the end. Then our organising surgeon who is dashing all over running everything from the company who gave us free vodka (!) and the choice of chocolates to managing the eminent visiting surgeons from the Mayo (there is a historical Mayo brothers connection) gabbled through her questionnaire of women surgeons with no translation. I'd not been given a name place at the panel so had sat in the audience.

(but we'd already been interrupted by the president who had spoken for a while - after translation, the only thing translated, because he was dogged faithfully by his own personal translator as he moved around the conference halls - about how surgery was changing to be more delicate, like women, and had then interrupted again after the second talk to very pleasantly hand us out all great socking medals - including those who hadn't spoken yet - as he had to go off to welcome the international laparoscopic expert who was up next in the big hall. I sat there, wishing I could go to that instead of watching these somethings in a foreign language, nice as it is to listen to..)

We then had to put up with a big red-faced self-important bloke who stood up and started talking - not on the menu, but okayed by our leading vascular surgeon. He went on and on for at least ten minutes, cracking jokes, (none of it in English of course) stroking the vascular surgeon's hair fondly every now and then. Then he burst into "What a wonderful world" (I understood this) to which we were treated along with two whole verses. Not a bad voice, as he knew. But it was not the evening performance yet. I feel fairly sure this would not have happened in any other meeting of surgeons around the hall.

The panel discussion disappeared as there was only a female professor who started some kind of argument to which our organising surgeon replied in the same language then it was all over.
We got given chocolates to cheer us up. Great chocolates.

So, very let down not just by my naivety in not checking and rechchecking my talk, and in not being more proactive (no one TOLD me I had to go to the guys organising to get it on their computer, but then I didn't seek it out either) but also in the shambles and joke that the session turned into. I can't believe how far we have come in women in surgery in the England in that this would never be tolerated in our meetings, nor in those in Austria as I have heard. It is of course a cultural thing (the man-handling of women in particular), but to have a man stand up and dominate the meeting, (whoever he was) patronising us with his song when there were serious things to discuss is just incredibly disappointing.

there, had to get that off my chest.

No comments: