Attending a meeting of the Association of Women Surgeons (AWS) was a revelation for Vivian Gahtan, M.D. As a chief resident at the University of South Florida in 1987, Gahtan was one of only two women among two dozen general surgery residents. At the meeting, she discovered a wider world. “I had never been around 100 surgical women before,” says Gahtan, until recently an associate professor of surgery at Yale and now chief of surgery at the State University of New York-Syracuse. “For the first time, I didn’t feel quite so isolated.”

Now president of the 1,600-member organization, Gahtan says the AWS hopes to attract female medical students into surgery, to make the profession more attractive for them and to provide a structure for networking.

Gahtan believes that women constitute a largely untapped resource for the profession. Women account for about half of medical students but only 12 percent of the nation’s 32,600 general surgeons, according to statistics for 2000 from the American Medical Association. General surgery ranked third in popularity as a specialty for men, but 10th for women.

“Women are becoming a higher percentage of the total physician pool, and if you aren’t attractive to women, it’s going to be a problem,” says Gahtan. “We have to change with the times.”

One major change has been the institution of an 80-hour workweek for surgical residents. Other options that need to be explored, she says, include consolidating the standard training time for individuals in surgery subspecialties; incorporating a standard family leave policy for men and women; and considering part-time practice. Gahtan notes that obstetrics and gynecology has adapted to the demands of the new generation: many physicians in that field practice part time, but surgeons rarely do.

AWS offers a free handbook, Pocket Mentor, that gives practical advice to residents. The group helps its members find mentors by gathering every fall before the annual meeting of the American College of Surgeons. Its website (www.womensurgeons.org) provides a place to ask about issues ranging from how to resolve a dispute over a call schedule to how to take a baby to a scientific meeting. “It’s networking, online,” says Gahtan. The changes advocated by the group should improve the lives of all surgeons, male and female, she adds. “The ultimate goal should be fellowship.”