Mentorship is key not only for successfully matching into ophthalmology but also for advancing one’s career. Numerous studies have emphasized the influence of gender-specific mentors and role models on the careers of medical students, particularly those interested in surgical fields, yet this has not been explored fully in ophthalmology. Furthermore, evidence suggests that female students who are early in their training must have positive role models to emulate and prove that a surgical career is possible.
The gender gap among ophthalmology trainees is narrower than in other surgical fields, with approximately 40% of residents being female; the gender gap at the leadership level, however, is significantly larger in ophthalmology than in other surgical fields. In ophthalmology, only 28% of US residency program directors and 10% of department chairs are female. We recently conducted a study to evaluate ophthalmology educators’ attitudes toward female mentorship to better understand how this may relate to the recruitment of female medical students to the field and to their career advancement.1
EXPLORING MENTORSHIP TRENDS
To explore female medical student mentorship in ophthalmology among academic leaders, we sent a survey to the Association of University Professors of Ophthalmology (AUPO) chairs, program directors (PDs), and medical student educators (MSEs). Questions focused on leaders’ perceptions of female-specific mentorship as well as on their own experiences with mentorship in ophthalmology. Additionally, we compared the number of female students applying to ophthalmology residency to the number of female ophthalmology faculty using AUPO and Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) workforce data. Finally, we evaluated responses to free-response questions from ophthalmology leaders.
In total, 75 AUPO members responded, including 30 of 72 MSEs (41.7%), 34 of 114 PDs (29.8%), and 17 of 135 chairs (12.6%). Of respondents, 55.4% identified as female and 44.6% as male. Male and female members had 47.9% and 47.6% female mentees, respectively (P = .45). However, 21.2% of male members versus 56.1% of female members agreed that having a mentee of the same gender was important (P < .01). Furthermore, 13 of 40 female members (32.5%) reported having a significant female mentor themselves, compared with 1 of 29 male members (3%; P < .01).
We also found that the number of female applicants to ophthalmology residency between 2016 and 2019 initially increased from 36% to 39% but then plateaued, from 40% in 2020 to 39% in 2021 and then to 38% in 2022. Concurrently, female ophthalmology faculty across medical schools increased from 35% to 40% (R2 = .078, P = .41). However, other studies have shown that this increase is mainly seen at the assistant professor rank, with only a small increase at the professor level. As a potential solution to this disparity, some respondents indicated they felt that the best mentorship model included multiple mentors. For example, one respondent noted, “It is valuable for a female … to have a female mentor, but this may be separate from or complement a career mentor.” Additionally, respondents agreed on the importance of mentorship in general, indicating, “Mentorship is an important aspect of medical education. Unmentored students are at a distinct disadvantage.”
IMPROVING THE LEADERSHIP GENDER GAP
Encouragingly, we found that male and female AUPO members reported no difference in female mentees, but women were more likely to feel gender-specific mentorship was important, suggesting room for further development of this type of mentorship in ophthalmology. Expanding female mentorship programs in ophthalmology can help to promote equity in training and ultimately help to address the lack of female representation in leadership. Fortunately, mentorship programs for students and faculty are being developed through organizations such as Women in Ophthalmology (WIO) and Women Professors of Ophthalmology (WPO). Such continued efforts may help to further bridge this gender gap and empower women across the field of ophthalmology.
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