Jonasson Lecturer to examine true nature of grit for women, people of color in surgery

Andrea A. Hayes, MD, FACS
Andrea A. Hayes, MD, FACS, FAACP

There is no way to quantify grit, that intangible psychological quality that combines perseverance and patience. You either have grit or you don’t, said Andrea A. Hayes, MD, FACS, FAACP. Most surgeons have it, especially women surgeons, especially female surgeons of color.

“There is no test for grit, no GQ—grit quotient—scale to measure it,” said Dr. Hayes, the Byah Thomason Doxey-Sanford Doxey Distinguished Professor and chief of pediatric surgery, University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Chapel Hill. “Grit isn’t about how or where you’re educated. It’s not a question of socioeconomic factors. It’s there or it isn’t, and Olga Jonasson, MD, FACS, had it. It took grit—a lot of grit—to become the first female chair of surgery in U.S. history. Dr. Jonasson is the reason grit is such a useful lens to explain and understand the career trajectory of a lot of female surgeons.”

Dr. Hayes will explore the ups and downs of her own career during the 2021 Olga M. Jonasson Lecture: Grit in Spite of Adversity—in the Pursuit of Excellence on Tuesday, October 26, at 1:00 pm Central Time. Academic surgery is never an easy career path, she said, but implicit—and too often explicit—bias and racism create additional obstacles for women and for people of color in surgery. Women of color face the double burden of gender and racial disparities.

“All of us, as surgeons, have grit, or we wouldn’t be here,” Dr. Hayes said. “But the idea of grit takes on a different meaning when you are female or African American or both because you have to put up with and process things that other surgeons may not even recognize. Whether it’s in the hospital, where someone mistakes you for the janitor, or outside, where you are handcuffed and taken to the city jail because you forgot to pay a traffic ticket in a succession of 80- to 90-hour workweeks as a fellow, you have to process it and move on. Because whatever happens, you are a surgeon, and your patients need you.”

There are no handy algorithms to cope with the challenges that surgeons face every day, Dr. Hayes said. But there is grit—a marathon of mental, physical, and emotional resilience in the face of adversity and frustration that is the foundation of every successful career in surgery. If a colleague who is female or a person of color seems a little more determined, a little more resilient, a little grittier, it’s because they have to be, Dr. Hayes said. Gender and racial bias and disparities are an added backpack filled with rocks, she continued. The backpack is no less heavy for being invisible to more mainstream surgeons.

“I love my career, love being a surgeon,” Dr. Hayes said. “I’m proud of being a surgeon and being able to help so many people, so many kids with cancer and other problems that surgery can try to fix. But that invisible backpack that so many of us carry needs to be highlighted.”

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has helped surgeons focus on gender and racial barriers that have long plagued the profession. The pandemic burden has given all surgeons a better understanding of grit and expanded their awareness of the burdens that other surgeons are carrying, Dr. Hayes contends.

“We have all been doing a better job just being a little more sensitive to what other people are going through because we have all been through so much,” she said. “The framing and awareness we have been talking about for the last year and longer have been helpful. For the most part, surgeons are good people who don’t want to hurt others. And we can all learn from Dr. Jonasson.”

Dr. Jonasson was a leader in academic surgery. Following her death in 2006, the American College of Surgeons Women in Surgery Committee (WiSC), and friends and colleagues of Dr. Jonasson established this lecture as a testimony to leadership and education in surgery, and as a reflection of the capacity of women to reach academic pinnacles. It is sponsored by the WiSC.

The Olga M. Jonasson Lecture will be available to registered attendees for on-demand viewing for a full year following the Clinical Congress on the virtual meeting platform. Also, be sure to tune into Clinical Congress Daily Highlights for an interview with Dr. Hayes conducted by Yewande Alimi, MD, MHS, incoming Chair of the ACS Resident and Associate Society.