Overcoming Obstacles – Women in Interventional Neurology

“All people just need an opportunity to shine. You learn that you have to stand your ground. Be willing to say yes to new experiences.” These statements by Mr. Mary Lee Jenson in an interview with Dr. Krishna Amuluru, published in a previous edition of ‘The Core’, exemplify the role of women in the neuro-interventional world.

Every woman in the field has a story to tell, challenges she had to overcome and people to thank- mentors, colleagues and families who believed in her and supported her.

Like many surgical specialties, neurointerventional surgery was a male dominated specialty. While the number of female neurointerventionalists is steadily rising, the number of male physicians significantly outnumber women interventionalists. The factors leading to these discrepancies are probably multifactorial- call schedules, work hours, radiation exposure, disparaging comments about women in surgical specialties in early medical school days and so on.

Dr. Nazli Janjua, in an interview with Dr. Eugene Lee said, “Most women at some point in their lives have experienced gender discrimination. And most perpetrators don’t realize they are doing it but they undermine women’s efforts.”

Dr. Jenson in her interview describes her experiences- “During certain employment considerations, one interviewer said he had one question and that question was, “When do you want to have the first baby?” That was his only question for me.” These pioneering women opened up the field for the younger generation of female neuro-interventionalists. There is a substantial increase in the female ratios in the last 5 years.

As a neurology resident interviewing for stroke and NIR fellowships, I was fortunate to have crossed paths with Dr. Thanh Nguyen in Boston. She was in her final trimester, and about to scrub in to coil a ruptured aneurysm. Seeing her in that moment further strengthened my resolve to pursue the specialty- if she could do interventions, and have a family, so can the rest of us. While many of us may have not had direct women NIR mentors, having role models, collaborating, talking to other women facing similar challenges goes a long way in providing the support needed.

While we recognize traditional gender roles and potential discrimination, it is also equally important to honor and recognize the men and women who have supported and paved the path of the new generation of early career women interventionalists, fellows, residents and medical students interested in the specialty.  Keeping your head high and leading by example is something I learned from women mentors in the field.

Both SVIN and SNIS have annual Women in Interventional neurology dinners and discussions. Dr. Narayanan, Dr. Johnson, Dr. Fifi and many others have had a constant presence at these women led initiatives and this panel of high achieving women is always willing to answer any queries, talk and support the younger generation. As Dr. Jenson very succinctly summarized, “You may think you have to perform better than a man in order to be accepted as an equal.  You don’t–just be the best that you can be and don’t worry about what other people think.  Surround yourself with people who cheer you on, people who are your champions, and they don’t all have to be women.”

Gurmeen Kaur, MD