My Journey in Surgery by Sarah Itam

My Journey in Surgery by Sarah Itam

A trainer once asked me, "Sarah, have you considered introducing yourself as Dr Itam rather than Miss Itam?". He continued, "I don't think the patients believe you are a doctor, let alone a surgeon. In their minds, they see a surgeon as White, male and middle-aged, and you are young, Black and female". I had always considered him an excellent trainer and appreciated his honest, if slightly unnerving, advice. At the time, I did not realise quite how insightful his comment was. Almost every week, a patient or staff member will express surprise that I am a consultant urologist when introducing myself for the first time. Sadly, my experiences are not unique. I currently participate in a number of forums for female surgeons, and many admit that constantly having to explain who they are, prove their credentials and ignore frequent differential treatment can be draining. Whilst the overall number of women is increasing in surgery, the chances of being treated by or working with a female surgeon remains relatively low.

Unfortunately, when it comes to my own career journey, gender is not the only factor that has shaped the challenges I face. Race has also been a key component. Early on in training, I realised that trying to be inconspicuous in a specialty with so few women, and even fewer who are Black, was simply not feasible. In recent reports on the profession, there has been a wider acknowledgement of the challenges linked to gender and race[1] [2], and RCSEd recognises "there is an issue in surgery when it comes to attracting female and Black-British doctors in particular"[3]. This "double jeopardy" - being both Black and a woman - can be an exhausting path to navigate, particularly when combined with the day-to-day demands of a surgeon.

The interplay of factors such as race and gender has meant that, at times, I have experienced unnecessary obstacles in my career pathway, and I now see my surgical journey at the intersection of three facets: the pain that I have experienced in my profession; the passion I have for patient-centred surgical care; and a purpose to ensure that those who seek a career in surgery have a fair chance to reach their full potential, regardless of who they are. I am very thankful to those who took the time and effort to help me in my journey to becoming a surgeon. Without their support and allyship, I would not be where I am today.

Consequently, the leadership roles I hold encapsulate a desire to give back in each of these areas where I have faced disadvantages. I am CEO and Chair of the British Association of Black Surgeons, an organisation which seeks to promote equality, diversity and inclusion across the surgical landscape. I am a faculty member for RCS England's Emerging Leaders programme, which aims to encourage more women into leadership roles. And I am a consultant for the SHARP project, an initiative run by Imperial College in association with the Prince's Trust, The Change Foundation and the Youth Endowment Fund to reduce knife crime amongst at-risk young people from working-class backgrounds.

I am delighted to be taking part in the AoMRC: Women in Leadership conference and look forward to you joining me for my session entitled: ‘My Journey In Surgery: Pain, Passion and Purpose’.

Sarah Itam, Consultant Urological Surgeon

[1] RCS England Diversity Report

[2] RCSEd Black Surgeons in the UK Report

[3] RCSEd - Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

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