NBC’s Dr. Nancy on TV, Surgery, and Academia’s Glass Ceiling

; Nancy L. Snyderman, MD


November 01, 2013

In This Article

Breaking the Glass Ceiling in Academia

Dr. Topol: You had a parallel track where you did correspondence in the media and worked in surgery and medicine. I know that you published a bunch of research papers. And you had an illustrious career, with Emmy Awards and all sorts of recognition on the TV side, right?

Dr. Snyderman: Yes. It has always been important to me that I be a peer review kind of surgeon. I have always had an academic life. I was trained by academic surgeons. I am a product of Affirmative Action. I went to school in the year when suddenly all of the medical schools opened for women, and I have no doubt that that allowed me to get my foot in the door. I always knew that if I could combine my scientific brain with common sense and hard work, that I could really have an important surgical career in the academic world.

Interestingly, when I started doing television, academic doctors sort of turned their backs on me. I was ostracized.

Dr. Topol: Really?

Dr. Snyderman: Yes. What I was doing [working in television] was considered a little sleazy. To be in the New England Journal was one thing; but to be in Ladies Home Journal was considered subpar.

Dr. Topol: And that wasn't the case for your peer, Dr. Tim Johnson, right?

Dr. Snyderman: No, it was not.

Dr. Topol: It was okay for him.

Dr. Snyderman: It was okay for him, and I think a little bit of that was that he was a white male Boston internist while I was female surgeon in San Francisco -- it was different. I think a lot of doctors, you and me and a lot of the people we know, realized that we can write up pieces in the scientific journals all we want. But the reality is that if we are going to reach the people that we really need to reach, we need to come down. The reality is that doctors talk in jargon and in shortcuts, and we exclude the people we really want to connect with. I kept nudging and after about 15 years or so, suddenly people looked at me very, very differently and I was welcomed back in. But for a while my picture was turned to the wall.

Dr. Topol: Wow.

Dr. Snyderman: It was something. It was painful. There were no women surgeons doing what I was doing in the 1980s. All of my mentors have been men. And the most important men in my life always urged me to do the best. But it was the men -- some of the men in power, editors of some of the prominent journals -- who didn't like it.

Dr. Topol: There still is a glass ceiling in science and medicine, right?

Dr. Snyderman: I think [there is a glass ceiling and] part of it is that when physicians get together, we love speaking shorthand. It's how we were brought up. And there is this camaraderie with physicians.

But camaraderie doesn't help the person whose bedside we are sitting at. I have always viewed whether I'm talking to 11 million people on the nightly news or whether I'm sitting at someone's bedside talking about a jaw and neck. My responsibility is to take very complicated stuff and, in a noncondescending way, explain it. I think every doctor has that responsibility.


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