Women Underrepresented in Orthopedic Surgery

Only 3.9% of orthopedic surgeons and 13.8% of orthopedic residents are women, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

The academy is working to attract more women to the specialty by placing advertisements in medical student publications and sponsoring booths at medical student meetings.

Loyola University Health System is helping lead the effort. At Loyola, 20% of orthopedic faculty and 16% of orthopedic residents are women. And at Loyola’s Stritch School of Medicine, six of the 11 fourth-year students applying for orthopedic residencies are women. Among podiatrists, two of the five attending and two of the seven residents are women.

“Having more women on our faculty and in our residency allows us to attract the most talented individuals to our specialty, regardless of gender,” Terry Light, MD, chair of the department of orthopedic surgery and rehabilitation, stated in a press release. “Having different perspectives among our faculty, residents and students enriches all of us.”

Loyola orthopedic surgeon Karen Wu, MD, specializes in adult hip and knee reconstructions, which are among the most physically demanding surgeries.

But in contrast to the stereotype of the big, brawny orthopedic surgeon, Wu is just 5 feet, 4 inches and weighs 120 pounds.

“I don’t have huge muscles,” Wu stated. “But it’s not really about brute strength. It’s knowing how to work smart. I have never been in a situation where, physically, I couldn’t do something.”

Wu recalled that during her fellowship, she was asked to reduce a dislocated hip in a large woman. She was the first woman to do the Aufranc fellowship in hip and knee reconstruction at New England Baptist Hospital, and her colleagues were curious to see whether a woman was up to the task.

Wu accomplished the reduction on her first attempt.

The notion that women lack the strength for orthopedic surgery is among the reasons why the field traditionally has attracted so few women. But orthopedic surgeons such as Wu and her colleague, Teresa Cappello, MD, say they do not have to rely on their muscles. They work with power tools, have assistants when needed and focus on proper technique.

“If you have to use brute force, you’re not doing it the right way,” Cappello stated.

Wu and Cappello are assistant professors in the department of orthopedic surgery and rehabilitation at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. A third orthopedic surgeon, Erika Mitchell, MD, will join the faculty in November. Mitchell was recruited from Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Her special interests include pelvic acetabular trauma and polytrauma. Cappello is a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, and her special interests include lower extremity deformities, including clubfeet, leg length discrepancy and hip dysplasia.

Wu decided to become a surgeon because she likes to work with her hands, and her interest in sports led her to orthopedics. She said orthopedics appealed to her “because the goal of the field is to keep people active.”

She said her gender never made her feel less welcomed at Loyola. She recalled that when she had her first interview with Light, she was 6 months pregnant. Light said she could delay her start time to take a maternity leave.

Cappello said that from an early age, her father strongly encouraged her to become a physician. She did not hesitate to enter a traditionally male-dominated specialty.

“My dad told me I could do anything a boy could do,” Cappello stated. “It never occurred to me that any door would be closed to me because I’m a woman.”

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