On November 6, 1847, Elizabeth Blackwell arrived in Geneva, New York to attend Geneva Medical College. In doing so, she became the first woman to attend medical school in the United States. She had applied to and been rejected from countless other medical schools, and it turns out that Geneva Medical School only accepted her because it deferred the decision to its students who approved her application as a joke.
I guess the joke’s on them.
Blackwell would later write, “I had not the slightest idea of the concussion created by my appearance as a medical student in the little town. Very slowly I perceived that a doctor’s wife at the table avoided any communication with me, and that as I walked backwards and forwards to college the ladies stopped to stare at me, as at a curious animal. I afterwards found that I had so shocked Geneva propriety that the theory was fully established either that I was a bad woman, whose designs would gradually become evident, or that, being insane, an outbreak of insanity would soon be apparent.”
Two years later in 1849, Blackwell received her medical degree, opening the floodgate for all female doctors who came after her.
Turn the clocks forward 175 years and women now occupy most of the US medical school student body, 52.7%according to a 2021 report produced by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).
Yet, women make up just 22% of all general surgeons, and that percentage decreases among more specialized surgery. We’re left to question, why?
Board-Certified plastic surgeon Kriti Mohan, MD has some answers. Immigrating to the US from India at age eight, Mohan faced ethnic and racial discrimination in grade school. But in medical school, the discrimination was different.
“When I was in medical school and residency, the thing that was harder was actually being a girl,” recalls Mohan. “[My] race was okay. Being a female was what was challenging.”
Still, in the 21st century.
“I remember hearing when I was in medical school about to start residency, that, ‘You shouldn’t be wearing makeup. You should downplay your femininity.’
“And I got a little flabbergasted. I’m not wearing makeup for you. I’m wearing makeup because I feel like wearing makeup. I’m going to brush my hair because I feel like brushing my hair. And I saw a lot of the women in that residency program who became extremely aggressive and dominant to counteract those things.
“It became a really big thing for me to embrace the fact that I was a woman. That gave me certain advantages and certain disadvantages, but I was going to own who I was.”
What were some advantages?
“It gave me an opportunity to uniquely interact with patients a little bit differently. Male patients, female patients, their guard is a little bit different when you’re a young female. They’re more likely to be open with you, conversing with you, tell you things maybe they wouldn’t otherwise tell a doctor.”
What were some disadvantages?
“It was assumed that because you were a girl or because you were pretty that there were some benefits given to you, especially in plastic surgery. I always went above and beyond to prove that that wasn’t the case. I always made sure that I was the one that rounded first and left last. Honestly, I think it made me work harder and do more.”
“And I think it paid off at the end of the day,” continues Mohan.
Today, Dr. Mohan oversees Ciaravino Total Beauty, one of the world’s foremost plastic surgery centers in Houston, Texas, specializing in breast augmentation. Dr. Michael Ciaravino built his practice from the ground up into a household name in breast implant surgery, performing over 800 breast augmentation cases a year. After taking over his practice, Dr. Mohan topped Ciaravino’s numbers in her very first year.
“He entrusted his practice with me to carry on what to him was like a third child. Even through the daily struggles that happen with any business, I get to be the pioneer of that legacy.”
Dr. Mohan hopes that one day, Ciaravino will be a household name for implants and an authority on beauty and injectables.
For her, the standard for the clinic is clear:
“It should be like an institution of philosophy in what surgeries you do… how you do them, how you take care of patients before and after, how you give them these results that last them a lifetime that they don’t have issues with. That has always been the Ciaravino way. The entire package of complete comprehensive care.”
Medicine as (big) business
I asked Dr. Mohan how she was able to translate her medical progress into becoming a successful business owner.
“My first year, I would get to work at 5:00 am and I wouldn’t leave till 9:00 pm. I was determined to make this work, and that there was no detail I left unturned or patient that I wouldn’t call personally post-operatively. From the patients to running the business, there wasn’t anything that I didn’t have my eyes on — finance, marketing, whatever was needed.”
Dr. Mohan’s most successful marketing has been through social media.
“We had social media, Instagram, Facebook, but it was more stock photos. We had this great culture of women taking care of women and a fun staff, but we weren’t showing it, in my opinion. So, increasing our social media presence was probably my largest effort.”
What advice would you give to up-and-coming female leaders?
1. Be willing to put in the hard work
“I would say it’s all about hard work and dedication. I would tell everybody that, if you aren’t willing to put in the time, then no one else will ever do that for you.”
2. Lead by example
“I have a group of over 10 women on my staff, and I’m always the first to arrive and last to leave, because you have to lead by example. And you can’t expect anyone to do anything that you’re not willing to do.
“If I want my staff to be kind to our patients or have a certain kind of rapport with them, if I don’t demonstrate that myself, that’s not going to happen. And that goes with everything else too. If I talk to my staff or anyone poorly, well, then they’re going to talk to each other poorly. So, it kind of goes with everything, truly, truly leading by example.”
3. Be true to yourself
“I always tell my staff, never do or say anything that you don’t feel comfortable being published in a newspaper on the front page. That’s how I live my life. And luckily for me, I can be true to myself in doing that. Because in this era that we live in, the truth will come out. Everyone knows everyone’s true personalities, and I think you have to be true to yourself.”
4. Find a mentor
Find those people who really inspire you and help pave your path to success.
5. Be passionate and love what you do
“I truly love what I do. I love everything about it. Even the things that I don’t enjoy doing as much, I’m willing to do them because I love all the other things that surround it. I love operating. And I know that if I don’t run my business well, then I can’t operate. So, finding that real passion for yourself.
“When they say that if you love what you do, you’ll never work in a day of your life, it’s completely true. Because it’s going to be hard. And in those moments that it’s so hard and you don’t want to do it anymore, if you didn’t truly love it, then you’re not going to last very long.”
Dr. Mohan certainly took his own advice in becoming one of Texas’s most prominent plastic surgeons. It’s staggering, however, that whereas 92% of all plastic surgery patients are women, only 17.2% of plastic surgeons are women.
Why we need more female (plastic) surgeons
HAS 2022 study published in the medical journal JAMA Surgery found that both male and female patients fared better under the care of women surgeons, with female patients experiencing a notable decrease in surgical complications, readmissions and fatalities.
The statistics didn’t predict Dr. Mohan’s success, and though some of her peers in medical school dismissed her, Dr. Michael Ciaravino saw Mohan’s steady dedication and talent. Ciaravino didn’t just see a “girl”; he saw a doctor whose commitment to her craft and surgical prowess was so clear that he would entrust his entire legacy to her just before his passing. Dr. Kriti Mohan’s story proves that a dedicated woman who works hard can transcend the barriers of misogyny and prejudice.