Breaking the barriers
Béatrice Cochener discusses gender bias, glass ceilings and the challenges facing women in ophthalmology with EuroTimes Contributing Editor Dermot McGrath.
Béatrice Cochener MD
EuroTimes: Women currently hold the leading role in many of the most prestigious ophthalmic organisations, and you will soon join their ranks as incoming president of the ESCRS. Is this an indication that women have finally achieved equal status and respect in ophthalmology?
Béatrice Cochener: I think that this specific period with so many women at the head of key institutions usually dominated by men shows the achievement of parity. We currently have several female presidents: Bonnie An Henderson (ASCRS), Anja Tuulonen (European Glaucoma Society), Cynthia Bradford (American Academy of Ophthalmology), Emily Chew (Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology), Cynthia Mattox (American Glaucoma Society), and Hiroko Bissen-Miyajima (Japanese Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery). Their achievement highlights the capacity of career accomplishment of women nowadays and the legitimate position of women in medicine in general and ophthalmology in particular.
I think this shows that things have evolved and attitudes have changed for the better. Women were once considered confined to the medical field of ophthalmology and some male doctors remained reluctant to recognise the equal capacities of women in surgical skills. However, those biases have gradually disappeared in ophthalmology thanks to the evolution of society as a whole.
EuroTimes: Half of medical students and residents in the United States are now female and women are increasingly visible in practices, at the podium and in academia. Are we doing enough to encourage women ophthalmologists in Europe?
BC: The situation appears to be the same all over the world. In France, for instance, there are two key reasons for the progress of women ophthalmologists: first, the access to a medical specialty is based on a graded examination, which ranks ophthalmology at the top. It has been noted that women perform better than men in this exam and usually get better scores. In addition, ophthalmology offers the opportunity to decide the type of practice you want. There is a high guarantee of success and the freedom to choose private, academic, medical or surgical careers, as well as whether to practise full or part-time. I think this appeals equally to men and women who want to find an optimal work-life balance and develop an interesting career without sacrificing their personal lives.
EuroTimes: Have you ever experienced blatant sexism and gender bias in your own career?
BC: I must admit that I did not really have to face such clear-cut reactions of sexism during my career. However, two small anecdotes spring to mind. The first incident occurred at the time of my residency when I had the opportunity to obtain a grant for a year’s research and was told by my boss: “You don’t need to take this grant because girls never look for an academic position!” The second one is actually a common message that I receive from patients, who regularly express their surprise when they discover that the head of the surgical department is a lady: “Congratulations on being a woman who has managed to be a mother and a Professor in surgery! It must be so challenging and you are so deserving.”
EuroTimes: Are there still barriers that are specific to female ophthalmologists? Do women have to work harder to prove themselves that their male colleagues?
BC: Definitely. I am convinced that a woman has to invest twice as much energy in her work to demonstrate her level of performance. They are judged not just on their medical expertise but also on criteria such as their ability to debate and present, their age and how they look. Actually, these barriers are not specific to ophthalmology but are applicable to any profession. However, the achievement of so many women ophthalmologists who are shouldering a high level of responsibility in our specialty indicates that mentalities have changed and social barriers have progressively fallen.
EuroTimes: Do women bring a particular skill set to ophthalmology or medicine? Without generalising too much, do you think there are some things that women tend to do differently, or better, than their male counterparts?
BC: If it is commonly said that “a woman can deal with three things at the same time when a man can only manage one thing at a time”; I am not sure that this ability changes the practice of a woman in medicine compared to a man. For instance, having trained successive generations of female and male fellows, I did not really see any differences in their approach to surgery.
EuroTimes: As incoming president of the ESCRS, what can you do in concrete terms to promote the cause of women in ophthalmology?
BC: Over the past decade we have seen an increased number of women in medicine and their role as surgeons is now widely accepted, so perhaps we don’t really need to over-emphasise gender differences. I believe that equality will be truly achieved when we will talk only about the talent and quality of each individual person without establishing a link to their gender. In ophthalmology, the price for career advancement is higher for a woman but it is no longer unattainable. On a personal note, and to echo the words of Martin Luther King, I have a dream, which is to hear people say at the end of my term of presidency that “she has been a good president for the ESCRS” without adding “for a woman!”