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Advancing Women in Orthopaedics Through Partnership

By Constance R. Chu, MD, Juliet DeCampos, MD, Laura Alberton, MD, Mary Lloyd Ireland, MD

    • Industry Insights

Letha “Etty” Griffin, MD, joined AOSSM in 1978 as a candidate member at the encouragement of Gerry O'Connor, who foretold the Society’s role as “a leader in the sports medicine world." In 1981, Dr. Griffin became the first woman Active Member of AOSSM. She was followed by a slow trickle of women, one every couple of years, until a small cohort began to take shape. In 1998, AOSSM founding member and past-President Dr. John Feagin, Jr, looked across the conference room and saw this small group of women sitting in the very back. He went over to warmly greet and photograph them—a memory that stayed with the group, which included Drs. Elizabeth Arendt, Jo Hannafin, Mary Lloyd Ireland, Sandy Kirkley, Ro Morwessel and Carol Tietz. Now, this group marks some of the best-known names in the Society. In 2011, Dr. Kirkley would become the first woman inducted into the AOSSM Hall of Fame, followed by Dr. Hannafin in 2021; Dr. Arendt in 2022 and Dr. Ireland in 2023. Dr. Hannafin would also become the first female President of AOSSM in 2013.

The Pioneers: The first women members of AOSSM gather in front of Dr. Alexandra (Sandy) Kirkley’s photo in the AOSSM Hall of Fame during the celebration of Dr. Jo Hannafin’s term as the first woman President of AOSSM. From left to right: Dr. Carol Teitz, Dr. Letha (Etty) Griffin, Dr. Rosemarie (Ro) Morwessel, Dr. Jo Hannafin, Dr. Mary Lloyd Ireland, and Dr. Elizabeth Arendt.

The road for these pioneer women was not easy and large roadblocks remain. More than 50 years after the founding of AOSSM in 1972, women continue to be grossly under-represented within orthopaedic surgery and orthopaedic sports medicine by every metric and at every level. The latest published census of orthopaedic surgeons from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgery in 2018 shows less than 7% of respondents identified as female. There have been just two women orthopaedic surgeons serving as NFL team physicians—Dr. Leigh Ann Curl and Dr. Robin West, with only Dr. Curl currently active. As of 2019, less than 5% of orthopaedic fellowship program directors were women. In AOSSM’s 52-year history, only a few women have served on the Board of Directors and Dr. Hannafin remains the only female President.

Women comprise more than half the population in the U.S. today, yet only about 13% of orthopaedic fellows and residents are women. The underrepresentation of women in all aspects of orthopaedic sports medicine is in part related to a severely constricted pipeline, but that is not the only roadblock. Ten years ago, women comprised just 5.3% of AOSSM’s Active Members; in 2024, we are up to just 8.7%. While lack of mentorship and sponsorship of women have been consistent factors, marginalization and limited recognition or promotion of the achievements and talents of the women who joined AOSSM in increasing numbers since the turn of the 21st century compounded the problem.


In 1999, Pam Whitehead, a distributer for DJ Ortho Orthopaedics, observed the dearth of career advancement opportunities for women orthopedic sports surgeons and how rarely women were speaking at meetings or being included in professional networks. Furthermore, the women were scattered across the country leaving few opportunities for fellowship. She invited as many sports-focused women orthopaedic surgeons she could think of to a meeting the following year in San Diego. Twenty surgeons attended, including three who would become AOSSM Hall of Famers: Drs. Arendt, Ireland and Kirkley. Others were early alumni of prestigious fellowships in sports medicine: Drs. Juliet DeCampos (Kerlan Jobe, Orthopaedic Clinic), Sharon Hame (UCLA), Nancy Cummings and Martha Murray (Harvard), Cheryl Rubin (Caspari), Yvonne Satterwhite (Andrews), and Stephanie Stevens (Hanaman). Together, community and academic members set a goal of mutual support for the betterment of women in orthopaedic sports medicine.

The founding members selected FORUM as the group name with an emphasis on collegial discussion of complex issues. Dr. DeCampos became the first elected president of this nascent group and by-laws were passed. Membership was established as an invitation-only group of board-certified, fellowship-trained, sports-focused, orthopedic surgeons with attendance and presentation requirements to maintain relationship-building. Of the original 20 members, 12 remain active. After the tragic loss of Sandy Kirkley in a plane crash shortly after that first meeting, the annual Presidential Guest Speakership was named in her honor.

The FORUM provided invaluable opportunities for female orthopaedic surgeons to present their work and to openly discuss practice, career, and work-life issues. In response to an acute clinical issue in the early 2000s of shoulder chondrolysis in young patients receiving pain pumps, Dr. Constance Chu presented and vetted her research showing the then-unrecognized chondrotoxicity of bupivacaine and local anesthetics to the women of the FORUM before co-author Dr. Freddie Fu shared it with The Herodicus Society. The FORUM was also an early audience for Dr. Martha Murray’s pioneering work in bridge enhanced ACL repair. Achieving practice success in solo settings, sharing of clinical pearls, and vigorous case discussions along with exploration of social issues created a close fellowship.

As a gift to The FORUM for its 10th anniversary, then-president Dr. Constance Chu hired an attorney to establish nonprofit status. This status, plus member initiated strategic invitations and the continued energy and relevance of the Annual Meetings accelerated the group’s success. The FORUM filled a need for open engagement on academic, practice, professional, and work-family-life management in an enjoyable and collegial environment.

The FORUM 2017 Annual Meeting: Members of the FORUM surround the FORUM Founder Pam Whitehead (front and center wearing plaid pants) in Napa Valley.

The FORUM suffered the passing of its founder Pam Whitehead in 2017. At the time of her last meeting held in Napa Valley, FORUM had materially advanced its members toward her vision of equal footing for women in orthopaedic sports medicine. FORUM members became the first or one of the first women to become the President of multiple orthopaedic societies (including AOSSM), department chairs, full professors, fellowship directors, and members of the Herodicus Society, with many crediting support from FORUM colleagues for their success.

While The FORUM was never intended to be a “secret society,” it was relatively unknown until societal movements compelled increased efforts to effect diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

FORUM/AOSSM Partnership

Whether women pioneers remain an “only” or “exceptions,” or break through to normative equality, will depend upon effecting and sustaining systemic changes. After the #MeToo movement empowered world-class gymnasts to seek justice for decades of sexual abuse at the hands of their longstanding team physician Larry Nassar, he was convicted in 2018. In 2019, Dr. Ireland led an AOSSM symposium on this issue and FORUM members Drs. Michelle Wolcott, Marlene DeMaio, Tamara Scerpella, and Karen Sutton created a position statement on “Sexual Abuse/Harassment: Creating a Safe Environment for Competitive Athletes”. The statement contained principles to be adopted as a standard for team doctors and sports medicine providers. The FORUM sought and received endorsement from the AAOS and the AOSSM for this statement. Today, all AOSSM Members have access to complimentary SafeSport training due in large part to Dr. Wolcott’s advocacy.

The public reckoning In 2020 on systemic racism following the killing of George Floyd by police also shined light on the threat to life, liberty, and livelihood resulting from systemic discrimination. These issues also substantially limit opportunities and advancement for women and people of color (POC) at every level. In response, the AOSSM leadership examined processes and took steps to implement change throughout the organization. A Diversity Task Force was established in 2021 led by Dr. Joel Boyd and FORUM past-President Dr. Constance Chu. To enhance awareness and participation, male and female Annual Meeting Co-Chairs were selected beginning with the 50th Anniversary Meeting in 2022. The Diversity Task Force became a standing AOSSM Committee in November 2022 with the full support of the AOSSM Board and Leadership, and liaisons from the DEI Committee now participate in other key committees’ discussions and initiatives.

Women at the 2021 Annual Meeting: Women attending the 2021 AOSSM-AANA Annual Meeting applaud Dr. Jo Hannafin following her receipt of the Robert E. Leach Sports Medicine Leadership Award. The following day she was also inducted into the AOSSM Hall of Fame.

At the 2021 AOSSM-AANA combined annual meeting, women in sports medicine were recognized in new and exciting ways. At this meeting, the FORUM was featured for the first time in its own break-out session on diversity. Dr. Jo Hannafin became the second woman inducted into the AOSSM Hall of Fame and, the next day, became the first (and only) woman to receive the Robert E Leach Sports Medicine Leadership Award.

Since then, The AOSSM partnership with the FORUM has continued to expand. The FORUM continues to host concurrent sessions on prominent issues in the field and AOSSM is proud to host a FORUM networking reception at the Annual Meeting. AOSSM has actively welcomed FORUM members and sought women volunteers for an increasing number of committees. In fall 2022, The FORUM co-chaired a surgical skills course with AOSSM at the OLC. New initiatives include collaboration on a “Return to Play Clinical Research Grant” and becoming a partner organization with the Video Journal of Sports Medicine.

FORUM Celebrates 25 Years. About 100 members of The FORUM gathered in San Diego to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Pam Whitehead’s dream to promote career advancement for women orthopaedic surgeons in sports medicine. FORUM Presidents in attendance include from left to right: Drs. Erin McLemore, Elizabeth (Betsy) Watson, Constance Chu, Laura Albertson (current President), Stephanie Martin, Tamara Scerpella, Sharon Hame, Nancy Cummings, and Juliet DeCampos.

Today, The FORUM is increasingly recognized as a vibrant group of fellowship-trained women orthopaedic surgeons with a practice focus in sports medicine. The FORUM recently celebrated the 25th Anniversary of its founding. Approximately 100 members now attend The FORUM’s Annual Meetings that are traditionally held over the Martin Luther King, Jr Holiday weekend. Both societies share the goal for a sustained, synergistic partnership in which women are fully integrated into the leadership, committee, research, and educational missions of AOSSM.

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