Bias Against Women In The Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery Field

By Dr. Jaclyn Tomsic

If there’s one thing that female surgeons know, regardless of their specialty, it is this: sexism in the surgical field is common, consequential and can affect patient care. It’s also rarely acknowledged due to those in leadership positions turning a blind eye. 

Gender disparity is especially evident in the field of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery where women in OMFS are greatly underrepresented. As of 2019, only about 19% of U.S. surgeons are women, and more specifically the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons has determined that practicing women make up only 8% of the specialty. I am one of those 8% and I have had more experiences with sexism and unequal treatment than I care to mention. 

More numbers back me up here. About 65% of women practicing in the OMFS field experienced some bias against them on the job. This includes frustration with practice, claims of sexual harassment, the feeling of having to prove their worth and work twice as hard as their male colleagues, dealing with the “good ole boys club”, and a clear double standard between women and their male colleagues.

The progress for change has been very slow when it comes to gender diversity for women in my specialty due to many reasons, however, even without the headwind of bias, women still face challenges that fewer men experience from the get-go. The greatest barriers for women in this specialty consist of the length of training, lack of mentorship and leadership positions, and lack of exposure/understanding of the specialty. So from my point of view, the hurdles in this specialty started a lot earlier than most would think – oftentimes, starting in early med school. I want to encourage other women in medicine, not just OMFS, to help support female medical students when they’re considering this specialty and assist them with finding mentors, gaining access to the right internships and facilitating connections within your network with other surgeons.  

When it comes to young female OMFS students, interns, residents and even those nonphysician members of the patient care team, another major concern is that when those in leadership positions know about or even witness this kind of behavior, there’s a code of silence and culture of turning a blind eye. Addressing sexism and bias in the moment is uncomfortable and nobody likes to be put in a position to admonish or correct their co-worker or even superior, but if no one ever says something, it’ll never change and it’ll always be a problem women have to contend with on their own.

With that being said, another thing that men can do to be allies to women in this field is to be open to hearing about instances of bias and instead of being defensive, have an open mind and take a moment to see it from our point of view. When women tell you how they feel and what they’d like you to do to make a situation more inclusive, act on it and don’t take it as an accusation. Or worse, accuse us of over-reacting, which is another common refrain from men when hearing about these specific issues.

If these patterns of bias and discrimination aren’t stopped, a lot of talented women will be pushed out of the field, or worse, never find their way here to begin with – and that hurts everyone: the organizations, patients, care teams and fellow physicians. I know from my own experiences when I wasn’t made to feel welcome from everyone, had my commitment doubted and my skills questioned, it not only motivated me that much more to achieve my dream, but also spurred me to be a vocal and enthusiastic advocate for other women around me regardless of where they are in their career.

I am proud of the strides we have made and how we have grown; but there is still work to be done. I will continue to do what I need to do to make sure that these conversations are being had where they need to be heard the most – to leaders in the OMFS specialty and healthcare executives that have a lot to do with the culture at their organizations and practices.

Dr. Tomsic is originally from Cleveland, OH.  She attended the Boston University Goldman School of Dental Medicine in Boston, MA earning her Doctor of Dental Medicine doctorate.  After graduation, she moved to Charlotte, NC to work at Carolinas Medical Center as a general practice resident, with a strong focus on oral surgery and oral medicine. Dr. Tomsic completed her oral and maxillofacial surgery training at the Detroit Medical Center in Detroit, MI, working at Level I trauma centers Detroit Receiving Hospital, Henry Ford Hospital and St. John’s Medical Center. Dr. Tomsic then chose to further her training by moving to the nation’s capital to join the Posnick Center for Facial Plastic Surgery, completing a one-year fellowship in jaw reconstruction, orthognathic surgery, facial plastic surgery and sleep apnea surgery at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC under the direction of Dr. Jeffrey Posnick.  During her fellowship she completed over 100 cases treating complex craniofacial deformities requiring orthognathic surgical repositioning, maxillo-mandibular advancement surgery and facial cosmetic surgery, becoming an expert in the treatment from start to finish.

You can learn more about her work here and by following her on Instagram.