Overcoming barriers to gender parity through mentorship


Vascular News is pleased to announce Sarah Sillito (Newcastle, UK) as our new Launch Pad columnist. She replaces Claire Dawkins, who helped launch the column—dedicated to issues important to vascular trainees—back in April 2022. Dawkins was recently promoted to the role of consultant vascular surgeon. Here, Sillito writes about the importance of role models in reaching gender parity within surgery, highlighting in this regard the benefits of an informal regional network of female trainees that has been set up in the North East of England.

Hello everyone, I’m Sarah and I am currently a year-one core surgical trainee in the North East of England, education rep for the Rouleaux Club, but also mum to two small children. It’s a privilege to take over this column from Claire and I wish her all the best in her role as a new consultant.

It is easy to be influenced by those around you. In my first year of medical school, a male professor of surgery told me that I wouldn’t be able to be a good surgeon and a mother. I believed him and, with his words echoing in my mind, I was deterred from pursuing a surgical career for many years. However, I couldn’t ignore the fact that surgery was what I loved the most and hence I now find myself on the surgical career ladder. As a woman and a mother who is at the start of her surgical training, it was important to me to identify and surround myself with strong role models. This is where the role of FiNEST (Females in North East Surgical Training) comes in. This is a regional network of female surgical trainees that was set up by a local vascular trainee. It’s an ever-growing group, currently sitting at around 90 members. We exist mainly through WhatsApp but have regular meetups and talks delivered by local female consultants.

Why does all this matter? Gender parity is a long way from being achieved in surgery. Females make up the substantial minority of trainees and unfortunately there are a number of deterrents and obstacles in the way of career selection and progression. The harrowing results of the recent sexual misconduct in surgery report are an obvious example but gender bias, discrimination and under-representation all contribute too.1 The systemic cultural changes that are required will take years to produce tangible results. This is where I believe groups such as FiNEST have a role. FiNEST has increased visibility of female surgical trainees within the region and means that we can share our journeys, celebrate successes, and support and advocate for each other to overcome commonly encountered barriers. The benefits of mentorship are well known and play a pivotal role in career development and progression. Whilst FiNEST is not an ‘official’ mentorship scheme, it has provided a ready-made group of role models that are visible to the new generation of female surgeons at the start of their careers and an accessible source of support. I think informal groups like these will have pivotal roles in encouraging and maintaining the female surgical workforce, especially if parity is going to be achieved. In the words of the civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’.

Sarah Sillito is a year-one core surgical trainee in the North East of England and education rep for the Rouleaux Club.

1. Bellini MI, Graham Y, Hayes C, et al. A woman’s place is in theatre: women’s perceptions and experiences of working in surgery from the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland women in surgery working group. BMJ Open. 2019 Jan 7;9(1):e024349.


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