Hello SOTGC community,
Today I have the honor of introducing you to Dr. Sophia Deben, Orthopedic surgeon at Naval Medical Center, San Diego.
I met Sophia three years ago when she had recently moved to San Diego, and some mutual friends had invited us to see a musical. The fact that we both were singing and chair dancing the whole time (it was Mixed Tape and is encouraged during the show, then went out and had “dance offs” at the club … I knew we were going to be friends.
Over the course of the past few years Sophia has become like a big sister to me. She is truly your “Modern Day Renaissance” woman. She has an eye for interior decorating that would make most magazine editors gush. Ever been to a “casual dinner at a friends house” and been served a phenomenal 5 course meal? That’s the kind of dinner you will have at Sophia’s. She gardens, she paints, she is always fashionably coiffed, and manages to make sure you’re perfectly posed in pictures.
Not only does she have a brilliant science mind, but some of the most thought provoking conversations I’ve had have been with my “Big Sis Sophy.” So without further ado, I will start the interview.
When I asked her what “having it all” meant to her, I was shocked at how simple yet honest her answer was: “some kind of happiness.” When I elaborated on “what it all” means to her, at this point in her life, she replied with “work/life balance.”
Sophia has always wanted to be a Doctor. When she was five years old she got the Fischer Price “Operation” game and was hooked. Naturally this led her from not just wanting to become a Doctor, but to becoming a surgeon. She said becoming a surgeon combined her strengths and interests into one career. These strengths and interests being: helping people, building, and creating. Sophia finds being a surgeon a wonderful challenge because every patient is different, so it allows her mind to constantly seek knowledge and then apply that knowledge to her practice.
When I asked her who her hero was, her eyes lit up, she sat up straighter and you could see the admiration beaming from her. Her Great Uncle was a Cardiac Anesthesiologist and was one of the “Jet Setters” of the 80s; constantly traveling, going on yachts and to fabulous parties. Despite this celebrity status in her family, he remained humble. He is the most kind, down to earth, and caring individuals she has ever known.
When I asked Sophia what scares her, I got another simple, yet honest answer. “Dark water, closets, bridges, and not being her authentic self.”
Elaborating on the “authentic self” Sophia said her road to becoming not only a surgeon in the Navy, but also becoming comfortable in her skin as a woman was long, and had many painful lessons along the way. In residency she found that when she started wearing no makeup, dressed in plain clothes, and acted and INTERACTED more like a man, she did well. When I asked her if she could have maybe incorporated SOME girliness into her appearance she said, “Marn…I did it to SURVIVE.”
One of the sentences she said that sat with me during the interview and still sits with me today is “None of us have really figured out yet what it means to be a ‘woman in the workplace.’” So much is expected of us immediately as a woman. And if we don’t act according to how a “woman” is supposed to…then we are condemned by not only our male but our female coworkers as well.
When I asked her to elaborate on this she said, “When I get to work I’m expected to say hi to EVERYONE. To ask everyone HOW their day is, to sit and talk with them about their feelings for a while, to say ‘please and thank you’ at all times when I ask for something. If I don’t, I get labeled “cold” or a “bitch”. That’s not expected of my male colleagues. Because we are women, people not only expect us (if we are to survive in our male dominated industries) to excel at what we do, but to also to fulfill the more standard female roles of sister, mother friend, as well. It takes an incredible amount of extra energy everyday to complete the same tasks and assignments because the expectation is that I should also give a high level of a emotional energy, attention and support to subordinates.
When I asked her “what is going on in the world today, that gives you HOPE about the future of women in the workplace, and especially in the future of women in medicine?” Sophia then referred me to a GREAT initiative going on called the Perry Initiative (named after Dr. Jan Perry). I have copied and pasted information below on this great cause!
At The Perry Initiative, we are committed to inspiring young women to be leaders in the exciting fields of Orthopaedic Surgery and Engineering. We advance our mission principally by running hands-on outreach programs across the country for women students in high school, college, and medical school.
The Perry Initiative was founded in 2009 by Dr. Jenni Buckley (a mechanical engineer) and Dr. Lisa Lattanza (an orthopaedic surgeon). The first Perry Outreach Program for high school students was held in the summer of 2009 in San Francisco, California. In 2010, the high school program expanded nationwide. In 2011, the organization was incorporated as a 501c3 non-profit, governed by a Board of Directors consisting of prominent women in the engineering and medical fields. In 2012, The Perry Initiative started the Medical School Outreach Program to encourage first and second year women medical students to pursue careers in orthopaedic surgery. Today, The Perry Initiative runs over 20 day-long outreach programs nationwide, reaching over 900 high school, college, and medical students.
One of the other trends going on in the world that gives her hope for the future of women in the workplace is the growth of female entrepreneurs. How creative they are, how resourceful, how no matter what background they come from or what their education level is, when they come up with a good idea, get together a plan of how to launch it, and work diligently at it, they can create amazing businesses that solve a market need and allow them to have financial security.
So I will close this interview with a piece of advice that Dr. Sophia Deben leaves us with.
“Follow your passion but become self aware enough to realize WHAT your passion IS. Be inflexible with your passion, and NEVER GIVE UP!”
Well Big Sis, I am taking your advice and I’m honored to have met you, to become your Little Sis, and I hope others are inspired and touched by your story as well.