How 1 orthopedic surgeon champions women in the field

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The number of female physicians in orthopedics is low with 11% representation. But Shriners Children's Northern California in Sacramento has taken on efforts internally and in the community to elevate and inspire women in the specialty and medicine as a whole.

Holly Leshikar, MD, is a faculty liaison for the Perry Initiative, which offers workshops for students interested in STEM careers. At Shriners Children's, Perry Initiative workshops allow students to participate in hands-on exercises related to orthopedics.

"It's really eye opening when they get here," Dr. Leshikar said. "The day itself is very hands-on. So you will have kids that say, 'I'm interested in medicine, but I don't really like blood.' And then they're sewing up pig's feet for an hour and a half and they say 'I can do this no problem.' [And] the tools that we use in orthopedic surgery are pretty foreign to a lot of people … These young people are seeing this at 13 and 14. They're reaming a femur to put in a pretend rod, and they're using heavy duty drills, and you watch their face, and they all of a sudden accept the fact that this is not hard. This is something that's totally doable for themselves and their future. It's a moment of huge, immense pride for themselves."

The Perry Initiative was founded in 2009, and Shriners Children's has been involved since 2010. The hospital's programs include high school students, undergraduate students and medical students. 

Its orthopedics curriculum was used by nearly 75,000 high school students nationwide in Fall 2023, and nearly a quarter of participants pursued undergraduate degrees in engineering, according to data shared with Becker's. More than 300 past participants are pursuing orthopedic surgery residencies.

Dr. Leshikar said the hospital's elevation of the Perry Initiative workshop is also reflected in the way they treat staff.

"Shriners has always been a huge supporter of Perry because it really harkens to our mission of education," Dr. Leshikar said. "Shriners Northern California probably has one of the most gender-equal populations. The majority of our orthopedic surgeons are female here."

Having that representation among physicians is important for physicians as well as patient care, Dr. Leshikar said.

"We serve patients better when we look like our patients, and when we can understand where our patients are coming from," she said. "Underrepresented groups caring for underrepresented groups makes for better patient healthcare."

Dr. Leshikar also emphasized the importance of allyship from male counterparts and others who are more represented in orthopedics. 

"I think when they recognize those differences and they push for equality and they act as a resource and help to change the culture to be more inclusive, then everybody benefits," Dr. Leshikar said. "When you look at certain departments and certain divisions, we have some of the best champions in the world in our male colleagues … I look to my mentors here, and many of them are more well represented or from a more well represented group, and they have been my biggest supporters and been my biggest cheerleaders. [They're] the first person to tell me, 'Make sure that you take time for your family. Make sure that you're the mom you want to be at the same time that you're a surgeon.' It's very wonderful to be able to share that with our residents and our medical students."

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