Dr. Frances K. Conley

I had a number of professors who tried to talk me out of my decision to pursue a career in surgery, and I’m not exactly sure why, although I think that their perception of the lifestyle of the surgeon was not compatible with being a woman. At that point I was married, and I’m sure that the general assumption at that time was that if you’re married you are going to have a family, and that the two—a career in surgery and having a family—were incompatible.

Surgery is just such fun. It is a wonderful discipline because you get a chance to do your thinking beforehand. You have to make fairly rapid decisions, and you have to live by those decisions. And what I really enjoyed about it was the planning and execution of "the perfect case." Of doing things meticulously, correctly, efficiently, and having a very happy outcome with it. And one’s ego gets very involved in surgery. And I guess my ego needed to be fed, and surgery did that for me very well. In 1991, I gave up my position as a tenured full professor of neurosurgery at the Stanford Medical School. And I did so because a person was elevated to be the chair of my department who I felt was a very sexist person.

The dean had articulated the desire to create an environment at the medical school that was more hospitable to those of us who were different—i.e., women and minorities. And his putting this person into a position of the deanship was antithetical to what he had espoused as his intent. And so I quit.

I had tremendous power at that particular time. I was a tenured full professor. And there were very few tenured full professors that were women who were neurosurgeons. I had been elected to a number of things at the University so I was very well known, and had a lot of support behind me, so that I dealt my hand with a fair amount of power behind it. The difference that I made when I took a stand on looking at or exploring the differential treatment that women received in medicine—the difference was, that it woke people up. All of a sudden, that which had been just accepted as part of the medical world, as normative behavior—that you can pat nurses on their butts, and you call people "honey" in front of patients, and that you can do this—that was normative behavior, and nobody questioned it. And I think the difference that I created was it made people stop in their tracks, and it made them think, Hey, is this right? Am I treating my women patients the same way I do my men patients—with respect, and with dignity—and am I giving them as much of me as I should be giving them? And so from that point of view, yes, I think it did make a big difference. Did I correct things? No, not totally.