Black and Latinx surgeons continue to hit glass ceiling in America

Study lead author Andrea Riner, M.D., M.P.H, a surgical resident at the UF College of Medicine, collaborated on the paper with Jose Trevino, M.D., chair of surgical oncology and associate professor of surgery at the VCU School of Medicine. Richmond, Va. — Among the upper echelons of academic surgery, Black and Latinx representation has remained flat over the past six years, according to a study published today in JAMA Surgery by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center and University of Florida Health.

The study tracked trends across more than 15,000 faculty in surgery departments across the U.S. between 2013-2019. Although the data revealed modest diversity gains among early-career faculty during this period, especially for Black and Latina women, the percentage of full professors and department chairs identifying as Black or Latinx continued to hover in the single digits.

Women from these underrepresented groups were even more absent from leadership. During the study window, only one Black woman and one Latina woman ascended to the role of department chair, up from zero prior to 2015, suggesting that the combination of gender with race or ethnicity deepened the disadvantages these surgeons faced when trying to rise through the ranks.

“There are a lot of talented surgeons of different races, ethnicities and genders who do wonderful work and are being underrecognized or not recognized at all. And that’s contributed to a lot of frustration,” said study senior author Jose Trevino, M.D., chair of surgical oncology and associate professor of surgery at the VCU School of Medicine and surgeon-in-chief at VCU Massey Cancer Center.

In 2019, the vast majority of chairs and full professors were white, occupying about three quarters of these positions. Black and Latinx surgeons held about 3% to 5% of the full professorships and chairs — clear underrepresentation considering the overall demographics of the country.

“I don’t think it’s a matter that they don’t aspire to these positions,” said study lead author Andrea Riner, M.D., M.P.H., a surgical resident at the University of Florida College of Medicine. “And I think many of them are truly qualified to lead.”

Over the six-year study period, the share of surgery department chairs and full professorships held by white doctors decreased by 4 to 5 percentage points, but it was Asian faculty who filled the void, rising by 4 percentage points over the same timeframe.

The study tracked trends across more than 15,000 faculty in surgery departments across the U.S. between 2013-2019. Although the data revealed modest diversity gains among early-career faculty during this period, especially for Black and Latina women, the percentage of full professors and department chairs identifying as Black or Latinx continued to hover in the single digits.Male Black and Latino chairs actually lost ground during the six-year study period, dropping 0.1 and 0.5 percentage points, respectively.

According to the authors, one way to promote success for traditionally underrepresented groups is sponsorship — meaning someone in a position of power serves as an advocate for someone else who doesn’t have the same level of influence.

“Having that person speak up for you and say you are deserving of whatever position you’d like to hold is really powerful,” Riner said. “As a profession, we need to be a little more cognizant or intentional about sponsoring diverse people within our departments.”

Mentorship and allyship are also important for leveling inequities in surgical leadership. Similar to sponsors, mentors provide expertise and support, though they may not have the clout to create opportunities for their mentees the way a sponsor could. Allyship is broader still. Anyone can be an ally, regardless of career level, so long as they lend support.

And the simple act of representation helps too. When students and residents see leaders who look like them, aspiring to those positions seems more realistic. But when female and minority trainees see a glass ceiling, they may be more likely to choose a different career.

“There are a lot of great leaders in surgery now — leaders who are very much willing to address these inequities, though their day-to-day activities don’t really allow for it,” said Trevino, who also holds VCU’s Walter E. Lawrence, Jr., Distinguished Professorship of Oncology. “Every now and again we as a profession need to take a pause and remind the people who are at the top of these academic ladders that they can help someone up and push them forward.”

Additional authors on the study include Kelly Herremans, M.D., Daniel Neal, M.S., Crystal Johnson-Mann, M.D., Steven Hughes, M.D., and Gilbert Upchurch, M.D., of UF College of Medicine; and Kandace McGuire, M.D., of VCU Massey Cancer Center.

Funding for this research was provided by the National Human Genome Research Institute (grant T32 HG008958), the National Cancer Institute (grant R01CA242003) and the Joseph and Ann Matella Fund for Pancreatic Cancer Research.

About VCU Massey Cancer Center

VCU Massey Cancer Center is working toward a future without cancer – one discovery, one successful therapy and one life saved at a time. Among the top 4 percent of cancer centers in the country to be designated by the National Cancer Institute to lead and shape America’s cancer research efforts, Massey is dedicated to saving and improving lives by discovering, developing, delivering and teaching effective means to prevent, detect and treat cancer and to making those advancements equally available to all. Massey is leading the nation in establishing a 21st-Century model of equity for cancer research and care, in which the community is informing and partnering with Massey on its research to best address the cancer burden and disparities of those the cancer center serves. Massey conducts cancer research spanning basic, translational, clinical and population sciences; offers state-of-the-art cancer therapies and clinical trials, including a network that brings trials to communities statewide; provides oncology education, teaching and training; and promotes cancer prevention. At Massey, subspecialized oncology experts collaborate in multidisciplinary teams to provide award-winning, comprehensive cancer care at multiple sites throughout Virginia. Visit Massey online at masseycancercenter.org or call 877-4-MASSEY for more information.

About UF Health

UF Health is a world-class academic health center that combines leading-edge research at campuses around Florida with outstanding clinical care at a network of hospitals around the state. The flagship is UF Health Shands Hospital, ranked the No. 1 hospital in Florida in the 2020-21 U.S. News & World Report Best Hospitals survey, with nine adult and three pediatric specialties in the top 50 in the nation, more than any other hospital in Florida.

With main campuses in Gainesville and Jacksonville as well as satellite sites in Central Florida and several other locations, UF Health provides exemplary health care to patients across the third-most populous state in the nation. UF Health consists of six health colleges, nine research centers and institutes,10 hospitals — including two teaching hospitals and five specialty hospitals — and a host of physician medical practices and outpatient services.

The backbone of UF Health is a talented and dedicated workforce of more than 33,000 people who provide lifesaving care and research breakthroughs for more than 3 million patients who come to UF Health each year from around the U.S. and more than 30 countries.

UF Health is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. As part of the state’s “safety-net’’ hospital system, caring for people who have little or no medical coverage, UF Health provided more than $254.9 million in unsupported charity care and social responsibility across its Gainesville and Jacksonville campuses in fiscal year 2019. Annually, UF Health contributes more than $4.6 billion to Florida’s overall economy.

Our mission is to promote health through outstanding and high-quality patient care, innovative and rigorous education in the health professions and biomedical sciences, and high-impact research across the spectrum of basic, translational and clinical investigation. Visit www.UFHealth.org to learn more.

Media contact: Ken Garcia at kdgarcia@ufl.edu or 352-273-9799.

About the Author

Dorothy Hagmajer

Dorothy Hagmajer joined the UF Health staff in October 2019 as a science writer covering the Congenital Heart Center and the Department of Surgery in the College of Medicine. Previously,...Read More