PRSonally Speaking

Friday, February 7, 2014

Leaning In for a Look at My Daughters’ Future
By Henry C. Hsia, MD, FACS
 
As a medical student, I knew an attending who trained decades before and she would tell students how as a resident she kept her marriage a secret because she feared being dismissed.  In PRS this month, Ridgway and colleagues report on a survey study highlighting the difficulties that today’s female plastic surgeons have in simply finding someone to marry (“Reflections on the Mating Pool for Women in Plastic Surgery.”). 
 
The authors note that this issue is “not unique to plastic surgery” and the Special Topic article has been made even more topical after the discussion generated this past year in the wake of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In,” including this blog where our colleague Dr. Anu Bajaj (http://journals.lww.com/plasreconsurg/blog/PRSonallySpeaking/pages/post.aspx?PostID=185) candidly shared the personal costs and challenges she has faced for “Operating While Female.”
 
Married to an entrepreneur running a start-up tech company, I’ve been forced to confront a key issue raised by “Lean In”: how to equitably split household and parenting duties with my wife even as we nurture our respective careers.  However, Ridgway’s report prompted thoughts not of my wife (who, of course, has already found her ideal mate), but of my two daughters.  Having school-age girls nearing all too quickly the cusp of adolescence and who (I hope) will be high-achieving women someday, I wonder about their once unimaginable adult futures: the opportunities that will come their way, the obstacles they will face, and whether they will see both the personal happiness and professional success that all parents wish for children. 
 
 
My daughters are young enough that I still can’t conceive of their going on dates, let along marrying anyone.  But I have developed my own ‘personal strategy’ that I hope will help them someday find a good life partner and a promising career. It’s a simple one (mostly because I can’t think of anything else):  I give them my time.  Or at least, I try.  Although it feels like it’s never enough, I do my best to spend as much time as I can with them, whether it’s to help with homework or just to do something silly and fun.  Happily, long gone are the days when spending quality time with your kids meant dealing with questions about your career commitment. 
 
And surgical residents find it more acceptable to openly consider their personal lives.  My former attending would be happy to know that the American College of Surgeons website even has suggestions on how to make residency training more “family friendly” (http://www.facs.org/education/rap/sanfey0410.html).
But as Dr. Stephanie Rowen has noted before on this blog (http://journals.lww.com/plasreconsurg/blog/PRSonallySpeaking/pages/post.aspx?PostID=169), work-life balance remains an issue for surgeons regardless of gender. 
 
Furthermore, Dr. Pauline Chen recently highlighted (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/12/12/are-todays-new-surgeons-unprepared/) the negative impact of work-hour restrictions on new surgeons’ skills, and it remains an open question whether it is truly possible to satisfactorily reconcile the needs of family with the necessary rigors of surgical practice, especially when you have a partner with an equally demanding profession.  And, to echo Ridgway, this issue is not unique to plastic surgery.  The New York Times recently published a piece examining how increasing numbers of women on Wall Street are relying on stay-at-home spouses to succeed (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/08/us/wall-street-mothers-stay-home-fathers.html).
 
I like to believe I’ll be able to help my daughters navigate this question in the future.  What may be a more telling sign of whether my ‘personal strategy’ will work, however, comes when you ask them what they hope to be as grown-ups.  Their answers lie in traditionally male-dominated areas: inventor, scientist, engineer, entrepreneur, film and stage director.  ‘Surgeon’, however, has not made the list (so far). 
 
Whatever my girls eventually choose, I expect them to be successful at it.  And as the father of these future high-achieving women, I admit I’ve become much more sensitive to gender gap issues in the workplace, a characteristic that I apparently share with male corporate executives, at least according to a Wharton professor who cites business studies looking at the impact of infant daughters on their CEO fathers and their management practices (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/21/opinion/sunday/why-men-need-women.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0). 

And like those fathers, maybe there’s something else besides my ‘personal strategy’ that will help my daughters eventually: what I do when I’m at work away from my daughters may lead to a big impact on their future success, since how surgeons manage and interact with trainees and colleagues sets a tone that permeates out, first in the immediate workplace, but eventually throughout a society.  Whether it’s in surgery or business, fathers can play an important role in setting the tone for a professional culture that will determine just how much resistance their own daughters will face if and when they decide to “lean in”.