Some time ago, Söring’s Macro instruments and SONOCA 300 were used in a very special liver operation in Trieste, northern Italy. Special about this hemihepatectomy was not the tumour resection itself, but rather the fact that the treatment was carried out by a team only consisting of women. This is really seldom. Just one third of the total medical and surgical population in Italy is female.1 And the situation in other European countries is no different.2 We spoke with Dr Paola Tarchi, general surgery and HPB consultant at the University Hospital of Trieste, about the reasons why there are still few women in surgery and what she likes most about her job.
During your medical studies you were eager to become a surgeon. What was it that fascinated you so much about this profession and how did you manage to make this dream come true?
When I entered my 6-years General Surgery Residency Program in Trieste, Italy, I got more and more enthusiastic and motivated with every operation, willing to learn as much as possible in order to perform better and to be able to take good care of patients. Over the years, I began to focus my interest in Surgical Oncology and Hepato-Pancreatic Biliary Surgery (HPB). I had many chances to hyper-specialize in HPB surgery through European diplomas, seminaries, rotations in other excellence centers both in Italy and the United States. Even today, it still fascinates me how meticulous and precise surgical manoeuvres can be and I love the complexity of managing surgical cases, particularly in HBP surgery.
I think passion and dedication drive our work. As tough and challenging as it is, it requires enthusiasm, discipline and a lot of patience. It took me years and a lot of effort to become surgically independent and being able to offer the best quality of care. I guess a bit of stubbornness also helped me to achieve my goals!
That sounds like a long road you’ve had to walk. In fact, the percentage of female surgeons is still quite low. Why do you think that is and what can be done to increase the proportion?
General and HPB surgery have always been male-dominated. The training is very long, time-consuming and never really finished. It’s also physically very tough, operations can take many hours. In addition, you always have to be available for your patients, which is really mandatory. In some cases you have to return to the OR in the middle of the night. The physical resistance becomes a habit, but a "normal" family life is hardly possible.
We urgently need an improvement of public services that help women to combine family and career. Italy is still very poorly organized and far from a work-life balance. Only with essential reforms we will be able to achieve equal opportunities for everybody, no matter which profession one has. Northern Europe could be a shining example for us here.
I think women often feel that they still need to demonstrate their ability and work twice as much as men in order to make a name for themselves. Moreover, female surgeons are not always supportive between each other, probably because of competition. But this attitude is progressively improving as more female surgeons are in the field and feel more self-confident with their career and positions.
I was very lucky not to find too many obstacles in my way. My chief in Trieste always supported me and helped me to build a strong career. He has also hired a lot of many female surgeons and has given us the possibility to professionalize freely without prejudice. It would be wonderful if this opportunity came along more often.
Sounds like you found your dream job. What do you find most important about your job and what would you advise other female surgeons to do?
In our profession it’s essential to work in a close-knit team – regardless of age, gender or origin. We all want to offer patients the best surgical care and we all need to be focused on that. When we support each other and collaborate respectfully, we can achieve much better results and a good atmosphere, which strengthens cohesion. I’m sure a good team can stand difficult moments better and manage complications more easily. In addition, new complex technologies and surgical techniques can be introduced much more effortlessly. I don’t like one-man shows, but I think if you work hard, face your own limits and learn to go beyond, you can realize your dreams and reach new goals again and again. So, bring out all your tenacity!
1 Società Italiana di Chirurgia (2018, 06): Primo Rapporto SIC donne in chirurgia, S. 8, https://www.sicitalia.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Primo-rapporto-SIC-sulle-donne-in-chirurgia-1.pdf (accessed on 2020/08/04)
2 Royal College of Surgeons of England (2019): Statistics. Women in Surgery, https://www.rcseng.ac.uk/careers-in-surgery/women-in-surgery/statistics/ (accessed on 2020/08/04)
Bundesärztekammer (2019): Ärztestatistik 2019 – Berufstätige Ärzte: https://www.bundesaerztekammer.de/ueber-uns/aerztestatistik/aerztestatistik-2019/berufstaetige-aerzte (accessed on 04.08.2020)