Rosa Pérez, 28, always knew what she wanted to do. She had no doubts, not even when her experienced father invited her to reconsider and to think twice about choosing to study General and Digestive Surgery. He knew what he was talking about. Years of exhausting days, standing for hours in a space no larger than a floor tile, sleepless nights, working ungodly hours, 24-hour emergency cover... but she didn’t care. She had seen what it was like in her own home, and she wanted to follow that example.
Today she is in her third year as resident at the Regional Hospital in Malaga and is convinced she made the right decision. She speaks with emotion about how surgery can change the course of an illness quickly. Her face changes and her voice trembles at the thought of that ‘power’ being in her hands. Just one cut of the scalpel away. That’s what fuels her to do her best every day in a profession which, because of its hardness, the physical effort it requires and the personal and professional sacrifice it involves, has traditionally been a masculine one. Until now.
The latest report from the Spanish Association of Surgeons reveals that the proportion of female surgeons in the youngest age group (between 25 and 35) is greater than males, 60 per cent against 40 per cent. The opposite is the case in the senior age group. Malaga is no exception to this general trend, which has been observed for the past five years due to more women in the faculties of medicine and the banishment of male stereotypes and prejudices.
Rosa is one of ten residents who are currently training to be surgeons at the former Carlos Haya, seven woman and three men. She works in equal conditions, with no aggravation, no sharp comments to affect her self-esteem and no poorly-disguised sexism, as those who preceded her have had to cope with.
Making their way in this profession was not easy for women, and nor was making themselves heard afterwards. They had to prove themselves twice over and raise their voices even more in order for anyone to listen. And that’s what they did, despite everything.
“When I started in surgery I would cry when I got home every day because they treated me really badly. Repeatedly and explicitly, my colleagues would tell me that if I wanted to be a surgeon I could say goodbye to ever being a mother,” says Marta Ribeiro, 52, who is the coordinator of the Breast Unit at the Regional hospital in Malaga. That continual “ill-treatment” seriously affected the motivation and self-esteem of a woman who was always a brilliant student. “It was challenging and maybe if I went back to those times I wouldn’t do it again. I really suffered, but at that time, when I was 24, nobody was going to stop me. If anybody told me “no” about something, that spurred me on,” says this well-known surgeon , who has two children.
But she was on the point of throwing in the towel. “I had three or four low points during my residency and even wondered whether to change tack and study a different speciality. The messages that I was worthless were constant and almost every day I was ignored or insulted by my bosses because they wanted to make me give up. In the operating theatre I felt I was always being examined and that made me put a certain zeal into my work which I didn’t see my colleagues having to do,” she says. Breast surgery was her escape route, a way out of that hostile environment which she perceived in general surgery. “If Ihadn’t done that, I would never have become coordinator,” she admits.
In the operating theatre, that cold and aseptic space where everything shines and nothing smells; where time flies for those in green pyjamas and slows down for those who, undressed, place themselves in their hands; there, in that micro-universe of scalpels, gauze, scissors and flashing tweezers where the clock stops is where 51-year-old Belinda Pérez, a specialist in the Hepatobiliopancreatic Surgery and Transplant Unit of the Regional hospital has spent a large part of her life. A professional who even as a little girl already showed her potential, when she used to entertain herself by listening to her ‘Nenuco’ on her toy phone and repeating that one day she was going to be a “meiquido” (médico, meaning doctor).
Nowadays, she is known nationally in her field, but “it has taken a lot to get this far,” she stresses. When she began as a resident in her hospital in 1998 there were no female assistant surgeons. Only she and another woman, Marta Ribeiro, were studying this speciality in Malaga. “We were like a monkey at the fair,” she says. They had to prove twice as much to be equal to their male colleagues and, above all, turn a deaf ear to the unfiltered comments from their bosses. It was that, or give up. “Hey, so we’ve got a miniskirt type of surgeon,” one said to her not long after she started. “That same person told me that women should be in the kitchen, not in the operating theatres,” she says.
All this led to self-censorship for years. “I didn’t wear a white coat, I always wore the green trousers and top so nobody would think that being a woman gave me any advantage. It was like that for the first three years of residency until I finally decided only to wear trousers when I had to,” she remembers now.
She decided to continue and ignore improper comments against her. “I realise that I was brusque and difficult to get on with. They used to say that if they squeezed me they would find I had balls,” says this surgeon who toughened up in a world of men where she felt she had to fight a great deal and also that if she had been a man everything would have been simpler.
She probably wouldn’t have had to listen in her first year of residence, when she was asked why she wanted to be a surgeon and she said she wanted to save lives, and was told that with the body she had she would be better as a beach lifeguard.
“Instead of taking it badly I just went on my way, showing I was capable of, even though it meant working three times as hard as my colleagues, and bringing up a family at the same time. They also asked me why my husband let me work as a surgeon and who was bringing up my children,” she says. But Belinda Pérez doesn’t feel that she missed anything, “because when I am with them I am 100 per cent their mother,” she says.
These women say things are very different now, compared with when they started. “The number of women in the faculties of medicine increases each year and more of them are opting to become surgeons. I am aware of what my predecessors went through, but I have never suffered any discrimination for being a woman,” says Pilar Gutiérrez, a resident surgeon in her fifth year at the Regional hospital.
Belinda Pérez recognises the advances, but until a decade ago “at the age of 40 and an established career,” she still had to show what she was capable of. “I began to feel I was a nonentity when they called me to be on a panel. They didn’t want me because I was a doctor, or because I had published more than 100 articles, or because I work myself into the ground, or because I handle the database for the whole unit or because I’m a good surgeon. They did it because I’m a woman and they had to fill the feminine quota. That was just absurd,” she says, as one of the women surgeons who, having battled against the system for so long, are not prepared to give up a single inch of the ground that has taken so much for them to conquer.