This Stanford neurosurgeon’s promotion just made history—here’s why it’s a big deal for STEM

Stanford Medicine neurosurgeon Dr. Odette Harris
Terrence McCarthy | Courtesy of Stanford University

When Stanford neurosurgeon Odette Harris was preparing to head into the operating room to treat a patient one morning, someone confused her for the cleaning staff and told her, "I need you to go clean room six."

"Okay," Harris said, fully dressed in a surgical mask, hat and scrubs, "when I'm done with this case." She joined her two residents around the operating table, where her brain injury patient lay under anesthesia, ready for surgery.

Harris recently made history for becoming America's first black female tenured neurosurgery professor. Her promotion from associate professor to full professor, first reported by the Stanford Daily, is a win as companies and institutions nationwide fail to promote and retain women, especially women of color, in the workforce.

In fact, Harris is the first woman in more than 30 years to receive such a prominent promotion in the academic neurosurgery field. She follows Alexa Canady, who in 1981 became the first black woman in the U.S. to become a neurosurgeon and later taught at the university level, and Frances Conley, who in 1982 became the very first female tenured professor of neurosurgery in the U.S.

"Usually you see somebody in a white coat and you think 'doctor,' right? That's a pretty well-established signifier in our culture, but the signifiers of race and gender are so much more powerful than logic would lead people to believe," Harris told CNBC Make It.

Photo of Dr. Odette Harris courtesy of Stanford

Even with her accomplishments, Harris often has to deal with "office housework," or what University of California researchers featured in the Harvard Business Review called tasks such as getting coffee, cleaning up after meetings and other administrative work that help a company operate.

Harris shared examples of times when she was asked to clean up a table shortly after being inducted into a professional society, clean a bathroom while taking a break in her white doctor's coat and take the garbage out.

Harris said experiences like these aren't restricted to her medical practice, adding "it's a routine and yet equally gutting experience every time it happens."

The University of California researchers explained that women and people of color do more office housework and have roughly 30 percent less access to "glamour work," or work that sets you up for promotion, than white men. As a result, these marginalized groups won't get hired, receive promotions or get compensated as well or as often.

"I'm never not shocked at the fact that the other dominant signifiers of being a woman and minority overwhelm that," Harris said. "I don't think that experience is different from a lot of women around tables and boardrooms who report the same thing."

Growing up, Harris followed a straightforward track into STEM: She graduated from Dartmouth College in 1991 with a degree in biology, completed her medical degree at Stanford School of Medicine in 1996 and got her master's in public health from UC Berkeley in 2001 while completing her seven-year residency at Stanford.

During the course of her residency in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Harris' colleagues witnessed firsthand the moments of racism and sexism she experienced.

"I'm 5 feet 2 inches tall, so most of my male co-residents were taller than me. We would go into a room, and the patients would talk literally right over my head, physically and figuratively," Harris said. "Unfortunately, my co-residents would have to constantly redirect to say, 'Actually, no, she's the person you need to speak with.'"

While people in previous generations didn't have a forum to discuss issues of racism and sexism at work, Harris said she makes an example out of these moments for her own residents.

Will we have to wait another 30 years to see the next woman in this role or can we stop and recognize this is a moment to foster change?
Odette Harris
Stanford neurosurgeon

"One day, they will be colleagues, not just your trainees," she said. "When you're a leader training people, these kinds of conversations are appreciated because you're recognizing them as peers and explaining that these are things that they will encounter for themselves or on behalf of the people they work with."

Harris noted that had it not been for her mentor, American inventor and neurosurgeon John Adler, she might not have ever felt empowered to say "no" to office housework and say "yes" to glamour work.

"When you're assigned something that you feel is a dead end, that is really going to take time away from your goal of being promoted," Harris said. "[Adler] taught me to say 'no' in a way that is effective."

Harris also added that "if you're a leader of a diverse team, you have to be invested in learning the differences and perspectives that your team brings to the table."

Having her story told, Harris said, is a vital step in making sure the voices of women and minorities are heard "because they're not the ones who are loudest at meetings."

"I can't believe that there are no other women who want to be in STEM, so this challenges us to ask, 'Are we doing enough?' As an academic, as a woman of color, I'm very much concerned about this gap," Harris said.

"Conley inspired me. Canady inspired a generation of us, and I hope that I could do the same," she added. "Will we have to wait another 30 years to see the next woman in this role or can we stop and recognize this is a moment to foster change?"

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