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Q&A with Dr. Sharona Ben-Haim

Although the topic of pregnancy and family leave has recently become more widely discussed in departments of surgery nationwide, little research has been done to ascertain the experiences and attitudes of female surgeons on the subject of and perceived barriers to pregnancy and child-rearing. In an effort to shed some light on the subject, UC San Diego Neurosurgeon Sharona Ben-Haim, MD, conducted a voluntary 28-question survey on behalf of the ANS/CNS Section of Women in Neurosurgery Women and Pregnancy Task Force, the results of which were published in a Journal of Neurosurgery paper titled “Pregnancy and parental leave among neurosurgeons and neurosurgical trainees.” Here Dr. Ben-Haim discusses the results of that survey and the steps departments of surgery can take to ensure that working parents are supported.

Q: Why was the Women in Neurosurgery Pregnancy survey conducted? 
A: We created this survey to assess the experiences of female neurosurgeons with pregnancy and parental leave, as it had never formally been assessed previously despite some increase in advocacy efforts. We were looking into understanding when women became pregnant in the course of their career, and how policies and attitudes surrounding maternity leave (or lack thereof) affected them.  

Q: What were the chief takeaways from the responses you received? 
A: The responses we received ranged across the board, however there was a clear message that between 30-50% of women dealt with significant obstacles during their pregnancy and maternity leave experiences, which included having insufficient time to care for their newborn and facing discrimination from co-workers, amongst others. Perhaps even more disturbingly, 90% of women who were not yet pregnant anticipated some or all of these obstacles.  This is alarming as it has become clear that many institutions do not have adequate family leave policies, and/or do not abide by them or communicate them effectively. We need to understand that this is can be a major deterrent to attracting some of the best and brightest minds, particularly of women, to our field.  

Q: Why do you think it is still so challenging for female neurosurgeons to balance work and child-rearing? 
A: Managing the balance between work and life is stressful for most surgeons, and is particularly stressful for surgeons (both men and women) with infants. In addition, there are extra considerations for women that might include having the ability to breastfeed, which can be challenging with a surgical lifestyle.  Many of these factors, however, can be ameliorated with the required support, understanding and sometimes flexibility of administration, department chairs and colleagues.  

Q: What policy suggestions do you have in light of this survey? 
A: Training programs should recognize these issues and proactively address them. It is important for all training programs to institute written family leave policies and clearly communicate them to their faculty and residents. Perhaps most importantly, we need to create a culture within our programs that supports our colleagues during these critical life events, and actively address overt and covert discrimination.  
 
Q: What are some ways the Department of Surgery and UC San Diego are supporting working parents? 
A: For faculty members, UC San Diego has a fairly generous and somewhat flexible policy offering six weeks of fully compensated maternity leave, and up to six additional weeks of partially compensated “parental bonding” leave, in addition to the ability to add accrued vacation days. Residents are unionized and as such policies regarding leave are largely dictated by that as well as by the ACGME/RRC and annual training duration requirements of their specific Boards.  Critically, the Department of Neurosurgery is actively working to improve upon the existing culture of our program, and is thoughtfully supportive of our faculty and residents during these important life transitions. 

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