IR: An entirely suitable job for a woman

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Maria Tsitskari

There is no “stereotypical” female interventional radiologist. We are simply as skilled, motivated, committed, and diverse in our interests as our male colleagues. Yet, there are definitely still barriers to women choosing interventional radiology, writes Maria Tsitskari, Greece, who is hopeful that raising these issues will help to change mind-sets.

It is probably fair to say that life for women in the field of interventional radiology is no picnic. But this holds true for men who practice in the field as well. Interventional radiology is a tremendously demanding, yet very exciting, subspecialty. As it is increasingly essential to the delivery of modern emergency and acute setting care, interventional radiology requires extensive training and comes with the assurance of long and unpredictable work hours. Consequently, there is great pressure and interventional radiologists need to draw on cognitive, technical, and leadership skills in sometimes difficult situations.

There are, however, some challenges that are unique to women practising in the field and it is important to consider the issues that women have to face today. We need to examine these challenges in the light of data showing that there are currently extremely low numbers of women in this field.

The most common factors that discourage women from taking up interventional radiology include difficult work-life balance and radiation risks during pregnancy. However, there are sound data to show that being an interventional radiologist is safe and that women can practise interventional radiology, be pregnant and safe. There are also the challenges that women interventional radiologists have to face in relation to child rearing. Finding a balance between work and family is an issue that affects anyone with a high-pressure job and requires good personal help and understanding from all sides of the family.

One of the hardest challenges that I have faced is having to fight for acceptance from other physicians, beginning with male interventional radiologists. There is an enduring belief that women are not capable of delivering the goods when it comes to technically demanding procedures. At this point I would like to refer to an old maxim in surgical training about the attributes needed to be a good surgeon: the eyes of an eagle; the heart of a lion; and the hands of a woman. Technically amazing procedures often need fine and delicate movements and women might even have some advantages on this front. In general, interventional radiology is a specialty that is seeking recognition and acceptance from other physicians. When women in this field also have to strive to gain a basic acceptance of their skills and ability, it adds another dimension to the mix.

One of the most interesting and motivating aspects of my work is that I have received great trust and acceptance from patients. There is a stereotype in our society that the surgeon “has to be a man”. This might be why it is easy for patients to accept that a woman is the proceduralist during minimally-invasive interventional radiology, which is vastly different from open surgery.

In the four years since my interventional radiology fellowship, I have been on an incredibly rewarding journey, during which I have had several testing times and obstacles. This has only made me more determined. When you keep pushing through, no matter what the situation is or how painful the setbacks are, incredible things begin to happen. My work in this field fills me with happiness and satisfaction. Interventional radiology is definitely the profession that I would go into, if I had to choose all over again.

My main message is this: there is no stereotypical female interventional radiologist. We are as skilled, motivated, committed, and diverse in our interests as our male colleagues are. I am hopeful that changing times, the data on radiation safety during pregnancy and shifting attitudes will bring more women into the field, and help them stay on the course of their chosen careers. Until then, I am certain that the small number of us currently practising will continue to make a big impact on our profession and patients.

Maria Tsitskari is an interventional radiologist in Greece.

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1 COMMENT

  1. When I served as the fellowship director for Interventional Radiology at Johns Hopkins I was disappointed and perplexed by the lack of women applicants. The percent of women interested in IR then was less than the already low percent choosing Radiology as a career. During interviews i begun probing women applicants to try and uncover the reasons behind this lack of interest in IR. Gradually a picture emerged as disturbing as it was unexpected. Women applicants confided time and again that the most consistent factor turning women away from IR were the reactions by their Diagnostic Radiology attendings. The notions of “untenable family life”, “dangerous radiation exposure”, “inhumane work schedules” and others were (of course untrue but nevertheless) cemented by those who themselves turned down IR as a career. The traditional IR training which consisted of 4 years of DR and 1 year of IR, meant that women were a 4-year captive audience to those who cultivated those negative mythical notions about IR. Perhaps the new system (residency) will help bring more women into out specialty. I hope. But before we search for boogie men to blame for the low percent of women in IR, lets have a hard critical look in the mirror first. All of us, men and women in DR.

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