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Why It's Smart to Opt for a Female Surgeon

New research finds medical personnel work better together when the operating room has more women.

Surgery is often a scary prospect. When you're lying on the table unconscious, the last thing you want is for your surgeon to be angrily snapping at his or her assistants.

Happily, new research finds such incidents are relatively rare. Moreover, their likelihood decreases when more of the people wearing surgical masks are women.

An observational study of 200 surgical procedures found "cooperation tended to increase with a rising proportions of females in the operating room," writes a research team led by Emory University psychologist Laura K. Jones.

It further found cooperation is significantly more common "if the attending surgeon's gender differed from that of the majority of the other personnel in the O.R."

The researchers observed surgeries at three American urban teaching hospitals between 2014 and 2016, noting exchanges ranging from small talk to confrontation. Documenting 6,343 "spontaneous social interactions and non-technical communications," they report only 2.8 percent involved conflict between members of the operating-room team. Fifty-nine percent reflected cooperation, while the others were neutral.

"Attending surgeons initiated by far most communications in general, including most conflicts," they report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "Four out of five conflicts in the O.R. were directed down the hierarchy, and mostly against recipients several positions below the initiator."

In other words, the lowest-ranking person is most likely to get yelled at—a dynamic not unique to operating rooms.

"Conflicts were more common when more males are present in the O.R. team relative to females," they add. While that's hardly a surprise, the also noted that "some heavily male-dependent departments," including cardiothoracic and neurosurgery, exhibited more cooperation than others, such as orthopedics. This suggests cooperation is more common during highly complex operations, for reasons of necessity.

But the findings regarding gender are the most intriguing. "In our study," the researchers write, "cooperation increased significantly when the attending surgeon's gender differed from the gender of the majority of the remaining clinicians in the room."

"The highest percentage of cooperation was observed when the attending surgeon was female in a male-prevalent room, or male in a female-prevalent room," they report. "The chance of at least one conflict during a procedure [was] twice as high if a male surgeon worked with mostly men, compared to mostly women."

Evolutionary psychology supplies an obvious explanation for this: There is a "greater need for individuals in the alpha role to assert their position vis-à-vis their own, rather than the other gender." If that's right, it suggests operating rooms—and perhaps other work spaces—will gradually become more cooperative as they become occupied by a mix of both genders.

So next time you're about to go under the knife, look up before the anesthesia puts you under. If you see a healthy mix of male and female faces, you can rest a little easier.