The less-than-desirable statistics on U.S. women entering science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are well-documented. According to the American Association of University Women, many girls and young women are often systemically biased away from science and math during their educational journeys creating access and opportunity issues later down the road. As a result, females make up only 28% of the workforce in STEM, and men vastly outnumber women majoring in most STEM fields in college. However, when it comes to medical and healthcare professions, the reverse is the case.
According to the 2021 statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics, 16.4 million women were employed in the healthcare and social assistance industry, making up over 77% of the total 21.2 million workers. From the statistics, it would appear that women primarily dominate the U.S. healthcare system.
However, a closer examination of the available statistics reveals a slightly different story in leadership career choices. While many women are in the healthcare space, a large percentage are concentrated in pediatrics (58%) and obstetrics and gynecology (57%). In addition, the rate of women’s involvement drops significantly further down the list of professions averaging only 16% for the Plastic Surgery category. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons places the male-to-female ratio of plastic surgeons at 5:1.
According to Ivy League-trained Dr. Jennifer Levine, a Facial Plastic Surgeon in New York, the statistics are particularly worrying. In her words, “92% of all cosmetic procedures in 2020 were conducted on women, which means that male doctors are primarily responsible for dictating the standard of beauty in our society. I am pushing to change this through advocacy and practice.”
Dr. Levine is the vice-chairperson of the Innovation and Emerging Technology Committee of the AAFPRS and recently presented on the topic, A Woman’s Perspective on the Aging Face: Facelifting Without the Male Gaze, at the 2022 AAFPRS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. She is double-board certified as a facial plastic surgeon and has recently opened her fully-accredited practice in Manhattan. She is also an active educator and lecturer who strongly desires to instill the knowledge necessary to attract other women to the profession.
To gain a first-hand look at the uneven split inside the profession, this reporter sat down with Dr. Levine to learn more about her advocacy for women to study and specialize in broader areas of the sciences.
Rod Berger: You have a highly decorated background with a Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University and a medical doctorate from Cornell Medical College. Outside of your study and accreditation, could you tell me about yourself and your motivation in practice?
Dr. Jennifer Levine: I am a single mother of two incredible daughters and have been practicing facial plastic surgery for the past twenty years. My practice on the Upper East Side of Manhattan offers my patients the option of having their procedures done in the privacy and comfort of an office without going to a hospital.
Most of my patients are women between the ages of 28 and 55. My double-board certification gives me a unique knowledge of the face and its underlying structures. I apply this expertise to create optimal results with a combination of surgical and non-invasive treatments to help patients achieve desirable aesthetic results without changing their faces completely.
Berger: With so many women now filling roles in the healthcare profession, why do you think there is less interest in studying plastic surgery or becoming plastic surgeons than men? Why do you believe that needs to change?
Levine: Most female doctors are more comfortable in areas like obstetrics and gynecology (Ob-Gyn) and pediatrics because women already have a strong presence in those fields. But when it comes to plastic surgery, it can still be considered an uphill battle for women to make a career in the area that men so unevenly dominate.
I believe there is a bigger picture that both aspiring female surgeons and female patients miss: who is setting the trends of what is considered beautiful? Over 90% of patients who undergo cosmetic surgery are women, but only 15% of surgeons performing them are female.
When a woman becomes a plastic surgeon, she is tipping the scales of statistics and helping take back and shape beauty standards. For example, during my plastic surgery internship, I was the only female in the group of 20. And while those numbers have evened out more now, the number of women completing their residency in the specialization is still very low.
My patients have a special appreciation of the fact that I am a woman and that I can understand their aesthetic goals and, even more importantly, their motivations beyond the physical. The male surgeons are fantastic, but more women need to be in the operating room.
Berger: Part of your effort outside your practice is teaching to impart your knowledge to aspiring professionals. In what ways does your desire to inspire more women into the profession weigh into your decision to be an active educator?
Levine: It’s a significant influence. I speak at multiple conferences every month, sometimes internationally. Teaching allows me to lead by example and inspire more women to stay the course because quite a few aspiring female plastic surgeons give up, especially in residency.
I am also an educator at heart. I have always been passionate about being a skilled facial plastic surgeon and equally vehement about research and teaching. Part of my drive is to learn about new technologies and treatments. I like to share my knowledge through lecturing, which often strains my practice, but it’s worth it.
Berger: Did being a woman negatively affect your journey to securing your place at the professional table? If so, what do you believe aspiring female plastic surgeons can learn from your path?
Levine: I don’t like to think of it as a negative, but my example definitely presented and still submits unique challenges. Back when I was pregnant with my first child during my residency, I could not apply to many facial plastic surgery fellowships because I could not travel to the interviews during the last stages of my pregnancy. It provided a moment for my vision and tenacity to step up. I decided to help establish the fellowship at my institution and became the program’s first fellow.
Being a mother and maintaining such a demanding practice and a career as an educator is not easy. However, my relationship with my daughters is still most important to me, and watching them grow is my greatest joy. Balancing my career with being a mom is undoubtedly challenging, but it is something that I am getting better at daily.
If aspiring female surgeons can learn anything, it’s that the journey is not easy but highly gratifying, especially when you consider the big picture of taking back the standard of beauty. As my favorite quote from Winston Churchill goes, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
It only concludes for you the moment you think it is the end.
The White House recently introduced a new STEM initiative adding ‘M’ to the familiar acronym to include medical fields in proposed advances. Announced on December 12, 2022, during the Summit on STEMM Equity and Excellence, $1.2 billion in projects and investments from the federal government, industry leaders, and nonprofit organizations will be used to bring more access and equity to STEMM.
Educational institutions will play a substantial part in STEMM advancements that look to not only end systemic biases in fields but better reflect societal demographics by 2030. According to Education Week, part of that reflection means doubling the number of women and African Americans in jobs while tripling Hispanic opportunities.
Dr. Jennifer Levine represents another key aspect of STEMM inclusion principles as a professional in the trenches. She is taking the time to educate and inform women of the importance of becoming leaders in a profession whose patients are predominantly female themselves.
While efforts are underway to increase areas of STEM to expand female participation, the inclusion of medical fields might help to even out the playing field in education. As a result, it may have a carryover effect of attracting more women to the adjoining areas of math and science.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
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