The Perry Initiative: Encouraging Young Women to Enter Orthopedics

Dr. Christen M. Russo

Dr. Christen M. Russo

Despite the increasing number of women entering medical and graduate school, women make up only 6.1 percent of fully accredited practicing orthopedic surgeons in the U.S., according to a 2014 survey by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. In an effort to increase the pool of women who might be interested in pursuing a career in the field, the Columbia University Department of Orthopedic Surgery partnered with The Perry Initiative to host an outreach program for 39 high school students on October 20, 2018.

The Perry Initiative is committed to inspiring young women to be leaders in orthopedic surgery and other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. The Perry Initiative is named in honor of Dr. Jacquelin Perry, one of the first 10 women orthopedic surgeons in the country and a mentor to countless women and men in the field throughout her career. Since its inception in 2009, the program has joined with institutions to conduct outreach programs across the country for women students in high school, college, and medical school.

Christen M. Russo, MD, a Columbia pediatric orthopedic surgeon, served as Program Director for the day-long event, with volunteer assistance by Columbia orthopedic faculty and residents, including Stephanie Shim, MD, PGY-5.

“In general, medicine is still a male dominated field, however, that is changing in that there are more female students than male students entering medical school,” says Dr. Russo. “Orthopedic surgery is still overwhelmingly male. One reason is that if you don’t see anybody that looks like you in the field, you’re less likely to think that you might be part of that profession. The whole reasoning behind getting that early exposure in high school is so young women can see that there are women who are engineers and who are orthopedic surgeons.”

“The whole reasoning behind getting that early exposure in high school is so young women can see that there are women who are engineers and who are orthopedic surgeons.”

— Dr. Christen M. Russo

The program consisted of a didactic session with motivational lectures presented by representatives from The Perry Initiative, as well as talks by Columbia engineers and orthopedic surgeons describing their respective fields. “Throughout the day, we also conducted six hands-on workshop modules with the students, demonstrating orthopedic techniques such as casting and external fixation,” says Dr. Russo. “They learned about the biomechanics and ligaments of the knee as we explained ligament reconstruction. We also showed them how to affix a plate on a complex fracture and insert scoliosis screws. It was a very unique experience.”

Perry Institute instructors with high school students

High school students join their instructors at the end of the day-long program.
They include Dr. Christen Russo (front row, sixth from right) and Dr. Stephanie Shim (front row, second from left).

Dr. Shim was eager to participate in the event and appreciates the leadership taken by the Department of Orthopedic Surgery to draw more young women to the field. “As I went around the country interviewing for residency programs, I noticed they were primarily staffed by men,” she says. “We’ve been very lucky at Columbia, especially having a champion like Dr. William Levine, our Chair, as we’ve had so many women come through its orthopedic residency program. It is certainly one of the reasons that attracted me to come here.”

Dr. Lauren H. Redler taking part in The Perry Initiative program.

Dr. Lauren H. Redler was among the orthopedic faculty to take part in The Perry Initiative program.

Dr. Shim believes that a lack of women mentors is one contributing factor to fewer women entering orthopedics. “Young women need exposure to great female mentors who nurture them along,” she says.

“There are still so many stereotypes about our field — especially that it is more appropriate for men, which is absolutely false,” continues Dr. Shim. “The program provided the opportunity to debunk some of the rumors about orthopedics, particularly the idea that you can’t succeed unless you come in with a comfort level using power tools, have a larger physique, and are physically very strong. I think, unfortunately, that turns away a lot of women. They don’t realize that men and women don’t generally arrive to residency with those skills — we’re taught them. You don’t have to be a certain size or bench press a certain weight. It’s more about the skills you learn and how to use them.”

Dr. Shim will soon begin fellowship training at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and plans to stay involved in The Perry Initiative. “We have a responsibility to pay it forward to help bring up the next generation of female orthopedic surgeons,” she says.

For More Information
Dr. Christen M. Russo | [email protected]