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What’s in a title? Move to drop gendered titles for surgeons welcomed

The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) recently announced it plans to phase out the use of gendered titles such as Mr or Ms and encourage the use of Dr or appropriate academic titles such as Professor for surgeons.

The move is an important step in achieving workplace equity, writes specialist general surgeon, Dr Christine Lai, chair of the RACS Fellowship Services Committee.


Christine Lai writes:

“This is Mr X, Miss C and Dr T, your surgical team. Miss C will be your lead surgeon.”

If you have ever undergone a surgery, you might have been confused by your surgeons’ titles – why is Mr X a Mr, and Dr T the only Dr on your surgical team?

Why is Miss C the lead surgeon when her title doesn’t include ‘Dr’?

It seems like all surgeons have gendered titles; does being a Dr mean Dr T is less qualified than Mr X to operate on you?

In a word – no.

Challenge for women

It’s confusing for patients to refer to surgeons with a combination of gendered titles and the commonly understood term, Dr. It creates a perception that Dr T and Mr X have different qualifications despite both being surgeons in the same department.

This is a challenge particularly for women, when there is already an existing perception, unconscious or otherwise, that female surgeons are not ‘real’ surgeons, or that female surgeons are not as skilled as their male counterparts.

While overt discrimination is no longer tolerated, many patients still question the qualifications of female surgeons due to implicit (unconscious) biases.

Sense of elitism

The use of the term ‘Mister’ for surgeons dates to the 16th century when ‘barber surgeons’ performed operations at the direction of physicians. The pre-nominal ‘Mister’ distinguished the ‘barber’ from the university-trained physician, or, ‘doctor’, and was retained by the Royal College of Surgeons of London as a label of status to mark the completion of examinations.

The continued use of gendered titles such as Mr, Miss, Ms and Mrs in surgery is unnecessary and connotes a sense of elitism and hierarchy in medicine. This is why I was proud of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons for recently announcing that it would be gradually phasing out the use of gendered titles in a surgery.

Surgery has changed from the time gendered titles were used to refer to surgeons. Surgeons now must have a university education, like physicians of the past, plus rigorous specialty training before they qualify. It is simply not relevant to continue using gendered terms to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the medical community.

Surgery is the only profession that uses gendered titles in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, where, respectively, 41.7 per cent and about 66 per cent of surgeons use gendered titles. The police and defence forces have moved to gender-neutral terms. In business, we now use ‘Chair’ or ‘Chairperson’.

Alienating terminology

Surgeons are doctors; I was a doctor before I became a surgeon and I will always be a doctor. My qualification as a surgeon does not make me better or higher in status than a general practitioner or a neurologist or an anaesthetist. All medical professionals work to serve patients and deliver the best patient care we can. Why should a title differentiate us from each other?

Being part of a group that only uses gendered titles alienates me and my surgical colleagues as women surgeons from being part of a larger group of doctors.

There is substantial meaning tagged to a gendered title in surgery; it suggests a higher status and elitism between surgeons and other medical professionals, male and female surgeons and women who are married and women who are not.

I firmly believe that removing gendered titles will lead to equity in the workplace, where surgeons are part of the medical workforce, not above it.

Dr Christine Lai is a specialist general surgeon, and chair of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons’ Fellowship Services Committee.


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