Although the field of orthopedic surgery lags in gender equity, three women orthopedic surgeons at UConn Health are making an impact by encouraging young women to enter the field through a variety of programs. It’s a prescription endorsed by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
“If we really want to improve gender equity and increase the number of women in orthopedic surgery, we must devise plans and execute them at the local, state, and federal levels. We must continue to expose young women to orthopedic surgery and encourage and mentor them,” says a 2019 editorial on the AAOS website. “Gender inequity continues to be a stark reality for orthopaedic surgery. In the United States, women constitute approximately 51 percent of the population and 49 percent of the total workforce. However, of the 29,613 orthopedic surgeons in the most recent AAOS survey, 6.5 percent were women.”
The editorial points out that there are now more women in medical school than men. “Yet there are still orthopaedic residency positions that have never been held by a woman. Women represent only about 14 percent of orthopaedic trainees. At the present rate of growth, it would take about 85 years to have 30 percent representation by female trainees, the amount at which diversity is noted to have an impact,” the editorial says.
The UConn orthopedic surgery program scores way above the national average in gender equity, with a ratio of about six to one. Seasons Magazines sat down, virtually, with three fellowship trained experts to talk about all the ways UConn women orthopedists are on the forefront of building the next generation in their field.
Dr. Katherine J. Coyner, M.D., a sports medicine specialist and a UConn sports team doctor, is an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at UConn Musculoskeletal Institute. Before medical school, Coyner captained the University of Massachusetts women’s basketball team as the 5’6” starting point guard and is still in the UMass top 10 in more than 15 statistical categories.
Dr. Lauren E. Geaney, M.D., a foot and ankle surgeon, is also Program Director of the UConn orthopedic surgery residency and an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at UConn Musculoskeletal Institute. She completed her residency and medical school training at UConn.
Dr. Olga Solovyova, M.D., a joint replacement specialist, and an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery, was also a UConn medical student and UConn undergrad, where she was a member of the rowing team.
Q. WHAT PROGRAMS ARE YOU INVOLVED WITH THAT ARE DESIGNED TO HELP EXPOSE YOUNGER WOMEN TO MEDICINE AND ORTHOPEDICS?
A. Coyner: First, there’s the Perry Initiative. It’s a national non-profit, created in honor of Dr. Jacquelin Perry, who was very much a trailblazer in the field of orthopedics. It’s a free, one-day high school program for young women designed to expose them to and increase the pipeline in orthopedics and engineering. One of the most exciting things is to see a kid with a huge smile on her face, using a saw or drill for the first time on a fake bone. We hold a Perry every other year or so. This year due to the COVID pandemic, Perry hosted virtual events. It might not be exactly the same, but we’ve sparked their interest to come back for an in-person event next time.
In 2016, when I came to UConn, we had planned to host 30 students for an all-day program. We had 230 applicants apply. Based on the level of interest, we created an additional program; Inspiring Women in Engineering and Medicine (IWEM). It’s a half-day program, and the women get to hear from all different aspects of medicine, not just orthopedics. We’ve had medical students, advance practice registered nurses, and physical therapists volunteer. Not everyone will be a doctor, but if you expose young women early on, the hope is showing them that they can do anything they put their minds to. We are creating a pipeline.
Geaney: Lack of female role models and lack of exposure have been a big part of the gender imbalance. Dr. Coyner’s really been working hard on getting our medical students exposed early, doing the Perry Initiative, getting them interested while they’re in high school. We think that getting them early is going to make them interested, make them realize they can do it. We’re trying to foster that a little bit.
Q. HOW DO YOU MAINTAIN A WORK/LIFE BALANCE?
A. Geaney: I’m a mother of two, and I would say that maintaining a work/life balance is absolutely a challenge. I have family close by, and that’s a huge support. But the faculty we have here are amazing. During my maternity leave, my partners asked ‘How can we help?’ ‘How can I take your call without you having to give it back in return?’ I picked a good place to work that appreciates family. Not all my friends have been as fortunate. As women, we have different family needs than our male counterparts. Our kids are six and three, and we kept our son in day care instead of sending him to kindergarten because I didn’t have the option to stay home with remote schooling during the pandemic.
Coyner: I am still figuring out work/life balance! My daughter Dallas was born via surrogacy in spring of 2021. Dallas has already been to the UMass basketball facility, and I plan for her to be a constant fixture in the stands at UConn games with my family while I am covering the games as a physician. It will be her life. (But if she doesn’t like sports, that’s fine also.) But as far as my job is concerned, it’s about picking the right place to work. Family is important to everyone here at UConn. And having a supportive work environment allows us to focus on patient care. I won’t spread myself as thin with my academic work, but I will focus on mentoring and giving back to women, which is my passion.
Solovyova: While orthopedics is a demanding job, we are fortunate to have a supportive group of co-workers. If you have a family emergency, you send out an email to the group and immediately three or four people will respond, willing to help cover your call.
Q. WHY IS ORTHOPEDIC SURGERY A GREAT CAREER FOR A WOMAN, AND DID YOU ENCOUNTER MUCH SEXISM ALONG THE WAY?
A. Geaney: When I was in residency training at UConn, there was one woman orthopedic surgeon on faculty. The biggest thing is: if you see it, you can be it. More women are entering the field, but we are not getting anywhere near where we should be. Right now, women account for 14 percent of orthopedic residents and about 5 percent of faculty. We have a lot of work to do.
You have to have a thick skin. In my training, most discrimination was not from my peers, but from my patients. If you do the work, peers respect you. Patients would assume I was the nurse, and after a while, it just became easier to empty the urinal than explain that women can be doctors and surgeons. Sometimes, people make comments about your shoes, and you just roll your eyes and laugh. Other comments were more offensive, and as a resident, I felt that I needed to be strong and deal with it on my own. Now, with the support of my department, the Ruth Jackson Orthopedic Society, and the Women In Orthopedics Facebook Group, I feel more empowered. I have started to correct people and raise awareness when someone says something offensive. I’ve learned that most people are actually embarrassed when they realize it and want to change. We need to give everyone the opportunity to be better.
Solovyova: When I was a med student, it didn’t occur to me that I could have a female mentor. We didn’t have a female orthopedic surgeon at the time, and the female residents who were in the program were never interested in helping me. Medicine is a very competitive field, and I think we get caught up in that sometimes. Unfortunately, this takes away from supporting each other and mentoring rising female orthopedic surgeons. In residency and now as an attending, it’s wonderful to be able to work with my female colleagues. I learn a lot from them, and we are working to mentor medical students and residents and increase the number of women in orthopedics.
Orthopedics is an awesome field, and young women interested in science and medicine should look into it. There is a reputation that you have to be big and strong to be an orthopod. You can do it if you are a woman. You don’t have to be an ex-football player. It’s so rewarding to help people. To hear, the day after surgery, ‘This is the best my hip has felt in 30 years’ is amazing. It makes such an impact on a patient’s life. It’s incredible to be able to improve a patient’s function like that.
Coyner: When I graduated medical school in 2005, I was the first woman in my residency (at William Beaumont Hospital in Michigan). When I showed up the first day, the office staff said, ‘Wow, you’re a girl. We’ve never had a woman.’ It was a heartbreaking moment. I was such a competitive athlete that I can be one of the guys. But why should we have to change ourselves? I had a very good experience, I was not discriminated against, but do think I was evaluated more stringently. I always had to show up and be ready to go. Professionally, I didn’t have any women role models, and that is what I would like to change for the next generation.
At UConn Health, we have demonstrated a unique passion for not only educating, mentoring, and inspiring female students; we are extremely dedicated to patient care. We understand the gender differences when it comes to orthopedic problems that patients present with and pride ourselves that we have created a new face of orthopedics.
Alix Boyle’s work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Bloomberg News. She lives on the Connecticut shoreline with her husband, Josh, and Helen of Troy, a pug who rules their home.
Photography courtesy of UConn Health