The fact that medical practises and diagnoses are gendered is not new. However, a recent study brought this reality to another level, showing that women are 32% more likely to die after being operated on by a man surgeon. Yes, these are real statistics. So, let’s take our scalpels and dissect the gendered mechanisms behind the term surgery.
After reviewing the medical outcomes of 1.3 million patients involving nearly 3,000 surgeons and correcting for differences in chronic health status, age, and other factors, the study revealed that women are much more likely to die (32%), experience complications (16%), and be readmitted to hospital (11%) when a man surgeon performs the procedure rather than a woman. On the other side of the operating table, men undergoing an operation had no differences in outcomes whether treated by a man or a woman.
While there are some excellent man surgeons who consistently obtain good results, these findings remain troubling, to say the least. Since everyone follows the same technical medical training, differences in skills don’t explain this. The study points towards implicit gender biases, stereotypes, and attitudes, differences in communication and interpersonal skills between men and women both prior to, during, and after the operation, and distinctions between work styles, decision-making, and judgement as potential explanations. Surgery still remains a hugely male-dominated area of medicine where women are underrepresented in residency, leadership, and academic positions, and thus still has a long way to go before having a gender balanced workforce. Addressing this gender disparity and having more women as surgeons would improve all patients’ outcomes.
The field of plastic surgery is also dominated by male surgeons, whilst most of those undergoing plastic surgery are women. Because of beauty ideals and social stigma around ageing, cosmetic interventions still vastly remain a women’s game even though it seems to appeal to more and more men. Having your body most likely to be objectified through the male gaze in cosmetic procedures may adversely impact women’s self-perception and confidence.
Gender dynamics and biases also permeate other forms of surgical operations, especially related to transgender and intersex individuals. The former already have to walk an extremely difficult road paved with hormone treatment, social and legal stigma, discrimination, and possibly sex reassignment surgery. Sex reassignment surgery still demands transgender individuals to be sterilised or infertile in many European countries – even though this has been ruled by the European Court on Human Rights as an infringement of the right to private family life. This requirement of sterilisation echoes the dark side of eugenics.
Similarly, ‘gender normalising’ surgeries seek to assign, without children’s consent, one gender, either male or female, to intersex bodies that do not match these strict biological definitions. While sometimes executed for medical and therapeutic reasons, many operations are purely aesthetic/cosmetic and performed on babies. These irreversible interventions not only force individuals into binary gender boxes – otheringTo treat or consider (a person or a group of people) as alien to oneself or one's group (as because of different racial, sexual, or cultural characteristics).close other gender or sexual identities – but can also have dramatic consequences including being assigned the wrong gender identity, sexual dysfunction or infertility.
Such medical operations on intersex bodies, just like male circumcision for non-therapeutic reasons, are vastly accepted in the Global North whereas female genital cuttingFemale genital cutting (FGC), also known as female genital mutilation, is an umbrella term encompassing practices and procedures injuring and/or removing parts or the totality of the external female genitalia for non-therapeutic reasons.close remains vehemently denounced, effectively othering African and Asian populations conducting the practice. There seems to be a form of selective condemnation when it comes to non-consensual (cultural) surgical interventions on children. But I digress. That’s not to say that I condone these practices, from a purely ethical standpoint, all of these (non-therapeutic) interventions without a child’s consent should be banned because they violate one’s bodily integrity.
All in all, whether in the workforce, in medical operations, or in aesthetic ones, surgery still remains a vastly gendered social phenomenon, which adversely affects specific bodies.