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Do Titles That Imply Gender Impact the Perception of Women in Orthopaedics?

October 21, 2019
by Matt O'Rourke

Are titles that imply a gender impacting the perception of women in orthopaedics? A new Yale study finds that may be the case.

The study, published in the journal Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research, looked at how different academic medical departments identify their leaders, particularly with the use of the word chairman. They found that many departments will use the term "chairman" instead of "chair," even while women may prefer the latter.

“Electing to use gender-neutral leadership titles, while a relatively small step in the pursuit of a more gender-equal environment, presents an immediate and no-cost way to support a more inclusive culture and counteract unconscious gender bias,” the researchers wrote.

More women than ever before are attending medical school, and the number of women faculty are also growing, the researchers wrote. Despite that, the number of women in surgical fields remains statistically low – only five percent of orthopaedic surgeons are women, they wrote. “The effect is intuitive; a gender-specific job title reinforces an atmosphere of gender hierarchy by indicating a position is meant for one gender and not the other,” they wrote.

The researchers included Mary I. O’Connor, MD, Director of the Center for Musculoskeletal Care at Yale School of Medicine and Yale New Haven Health and Professor of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation at Yale School of Medicine, Deputy Dean and Chief Diversity Officer Darin Latimore, MD; Yale School of Medicine student Connor J. Peck; and Yale Law School student Soren J. Schmidt. They looked at the departmental websites of 129 medical schools across the United States to determine how often the term chairman is used instead of a gender-neutral term like "chair."

“It’s time to pay attention to elements of our work cultures which influence unconscious bias. Honestly, the use of the term “chairman” should be a never event,” said Dr. O’Connor, lead author of the study.

Sixty percent of orthopaedics departments used the term chairman instead of chair, they found. That was a higher percentage than pediatrics (36 percent), internal medicine (31 percent), and obstetrics and gynecology (29 percent). However, it was similar to other surgical departments, with neurosurgery at 57 percent and general surgery at 55 percent. Across disciplines, men who held the top-level position for their department were more likely to use the term chairman and women were less likely, they wrote.

“This understanding of potential language-rooted biases in the field, however subtle, can guide simple yet useful changes for increased workplace inclusivity; in this case electing to use the term chair instead of chairman,” they wrote.

“Given the especially large gender gap in orthopaedics and the potential of gender-equal language to stimulate cultural change, departments should strive to use gender-equal language where possible,” they wrote.

Submitted by Matt O'Rourke on October 21, 2019