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Women in STEM Author Interview: Sala Abdalla

Posted on: February 1, 2022

What was your motivating factor to explore the STEM field?

I am a consultant in general and upper gastrointestinal surgery. From a very early age I knew I wanted to become a doctor. The motivation for this stems from experiences in my early childhood in North Sudan where I witnessed quality healthcare being the privilege of the few that could afford it. Those who had no access often succumbed to morbidity from readily treatable illnesses. Here in the United Kingdom we benefit from an enviable, comprehensive national healthcare system which is free at the point of use, yet millions of people around the globe are not so fortunate. Fundamentally, I wanted to become a doctor to help those in dire need of safe and affordable healthcare.

How many women do you currently collaborate with in the STEM field?

So far in my career in medicine, I have seen the number of female doctors swell. According to the University and College Admission Service, in 2020, 64% of those accepted into medicine and dentistry in the UK were women. What is even more noteworthy is that there are now more female consultant surgeons in England than ever before. While in 1991, female consultant surgeons made up only 3% of all consultant surgeons, in 2020 this figure had risen to 13.2%. In my own subspecialty of general surgery, female consultant surgeons make up approximately 17%, slightly higher than the average across all surgical fields. In my surgical department, three of the 8 consultant surgeons are female. While there is still some work to be done to better these numbers, the trend is definitely encouraging.

How can women support one another in the STEM field?

As a female consultant surgeon, I am one of a growing number of women entering a traditionally male-dominated specialty. I became interested in general surgery towards the end of medical school training, but found the lack of female role models in this speciality discouraging. I felt like the odd one out among my peers who were predominantly male.

I think mentoring is one of the fundamental ways by which female surgeons can support one another and those coming up behind them. Mentors not only offer support and guidance, but they can also impart wisdom from their own first-hand experiences which can help with professional development. I now actively mentor junior trainees, particularly female trainees, in a way that I think would have benefited me in the early days of training.
On a national scale, organisations such as Women in Surgery (WinS) promote surgery as a career for women and support female surgeons through various schemes and resources offered by the Royal College of Surgeons of England. These range from workshops for school children to encourage girls to consider surgery from an early age, to programmes such as the Emerging Leaders programme which aims to encourage female surgical trainees and consultants into leadership roles within surgical and healthcare professions.

What kind of content do you think will help women in STEM?

For starters, I think the growing numbers of women in surgery is changing the face of surgery to one which is more diverse and widening representation. This is encouraging more women than before to consider surgery as a career. In 2014 we had our first female president of the Royal College of Surgeons, an inspirational event for women!

Women in surgery sadly continue to be subjected to misogynistic attitudes and behaviours and some worry about speaking up about these issues for fear of recrimination. Surgical organisations need to uphold a zero tolerance policy and produce legislatives to empower their female staff to challenge these attitudes in order to make surgery an inclusive field where women want to work.

Lastly, there is a need for more content and resources to address the unique challenges for women in surgery such as training while child bearing/rearing. What is encouraging is that the Royal College of surgeons now provides free membership to women on parental leave as well as information on flexible working and returning to work after parental leave.

What needs to happen in the STEM field to attract more women?

Mentorship is very important. Having female role models and representation in senior surgical roles will make a surgical career more attractive for women. Many women miss out on a surgical career because they don’t want to be the odd one out. Meeting successful female role models at an early stage in their career path will help address this.

Promoting the Women in Surgery (WinS) network and expanding their outreach. WinS brings over 6,000 women from all career grades and specialties across the UK to collaborate, network and find support.

More flexibility and less rigidity within the career pathway will make surgery more appealing for women who plan to have a family and take time out of training.

More support in the surgical workplace for women who are pregnant by integrating remote working and virtual clinics into their clinical practice. This was the practice during peaks of the Covid-19 pandemic. The infrastructure is in place so it should be easily deliverable. Enabling pregnant women to choose when to come off the emergency rota when the workload is particularly intense will make surgery more appealing to women who want to have children.

What skillset is beneficial for considering a pathway in STEM?

Surgery is one of the most demanding of medical disciplines, requiring years of hard work and discipline. Yet from this, the general surgeon becomes confident, decisive and an excellent problem solver. Having an analytical mind and manual dexterity are all extremely useful skills for the surgeon. Teamwork and leadership are integral to all aspects of a surgeon’s work, from reviewing patients on a ward-round, running an operating list to training the surgeons of the future. Surgery is a rewarding, intellectually stimulating career with opportunities to develop additional interests such as in research, teaching and mentoring.

What motivates you to learn?

Like all aspects of medicine, surgery is continuously evolving. Integrating artificial intelligence, augmented reality and virtual reality tools into surgical practice are uses of some of the newer technologies that are gaining popularity. Having an appetite for learning and keeping up with these advances are fundamental to being a doctor and surgeon. The learning never stops as we develop newer and better forms of treatments. My desire to provide high-quality, evidence-based care for my patients motivates me to continue to learn and acquire new skills.