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How to Fix the Academic-Surgical Pipeline for All

Photo: Courtesy of Society of Black Academic Surgeons

Despite increasing ethnic, racial, and gender diversity in the United States, black women continue to be underrepresented in academic surgery. The academic-surgical pipeline to promotion and tenure for black women surgeon scientists is broken. As a result, black women remain underrepresented in surgical leadership positions. 

Too ivory a tower

This disparity is greatest at the highest academic levels, from professors and chairs of departments to medical school deans. To date, there has never been a black woman department of surgery chair. 

Despite significant barriers, black women surgeons find ways to excel and persevere as wives, partners, mothers, sisters and friends, division chiefs, program directors, NIH-funded surgeon scientists, community leaders, mentors and sponsors, and leaders in surgical organizations. Black women are pioneers, achieving many “firsts” in US surgery. 

Among that long list of pioneers are Dr. Helen Dickens, the first black female surgeon admitted to the American College of Surgeons in 1950; Dr. Velma Scantlebury (associate director of the Kidney Transplant Program, Christiana Care), the first black female transplant surgeon; Dr. Debra Ford (Associate Professor of Surgery and Vice Chair of Surgery, Howard University), the first black female colorectal surgeon; Dr. Odette Harris, the first black female professor of Neurosurgery (promoted in 2018 at Stanford University); Dr. Cheryl Lee, the first black female Chair of Urology (named in 2016 at Ohio State University); Dr. Andrea Hayes-Jordan, the first black female, board-certified pediatric surgeon; and Dr. Carol Brown, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medical College and Director, Office of Diversity ProgramsMemorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center, the first black female president of the Society of Gynecologic Oncology. 

A first, many times over

Black women have become presidents of surgical societies such as the Society of Black Academic Surgeons (SBAS) the preeminent surgical society, whose mission is “to improve health, advance science, and foster careers of African American andother underrepresented minority surgeons.”Past President Dr. Patricia Turner, Associate Professor of Surgery at the University of Chicago and Director of Member Services for the American College of Surgeons; and newly elected President-Elect Dr. Andrea Hayes-Jordan, Chief of Pediatric Surgery and Surgeon in Chief of the Children’s Hospital at the University of North Carolina embody this mission in their personal and professional accomplishments.

These physicians are living examples of black women who are driven and determined to succeed, living by the words of Dr. Charles Drew: “excellence in performance transcends artificial barriers created by man”.  Organizations such as SBAS recognize that the academic-surgical pipeline is broken. Yet, we can overcome the deficiencies of the past by promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, and advancement for black women and other underrepresented minorities for the future.

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