Background: The number of women reaching top ranks in academic surgery is remarkably low. The purpose of this study was to identify: 1) barriers to becoming a female surgical leader; 2) key attributes that enable advancement and success; and 3) current leadership challenges faced as senior leaders. Methods: Semi-structured interviews of ten female surgical leaders queried the following dimensions: attributes for success, lessons learned, mistakes, key career steps, the role of mentoring, gender advantages/disadvantages, and challenges. Results: Perseverance (60%) and drive (50%) were identified as critical success factors, as were good communication skills, a passion for scholarship, a stable home life and a positive outlook. Eighty percent identified discrimination or gender prejudice as a major obstacle in their careers. While 90% percent had mentors, 50% acknowledged that they had not been effectively mentored. Career advice included: develop broad career goals (50%); select a conducive environment (30%); find a mentor (60%); take personal responsibility (40%); organize time and achieve balance (40%); network (30%); create a niche (30%); pursue research (30%); publish (50%); speak in public (30%); and enjoy the process (30%). Being in a minority, being highly visible and being collaborative were identified as advantages. Obtaining buy-in and achieving consensus was the greatest leadership challenge reported. Conclusions: Female academic surgeons face challenges to career advancement. While these barriers are real, they can be overcome by resolve, commitment, and developing strong communication skills. These elements should be taken into consideration in designing career development programs for junior female surgical faculty.
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