On March 8, 2018, International Women’s Day we were reminded of working toward gender parity and the need to #pressforprogress. Even outside of this, what Dr. Odette Harris has accomplished is no small feat, but because of the gender parity focus, it is even more noteworthy.
What has this Jamaican-born African American Neurosurgeon accomplished? Dr. Odette Harris has progressed gender parity, becoming the first African American Professor of Neurosurgery at Stanford University.
She is the second African-American woman professor of neurosurgery in the USA. The first was Dr. Alexa Irene Canady: the first African-American woman neurosurgeon, and in addition to surgery she also conducted research and was a professor of neurosurgery at Wayne State University.
Dr. Odette Harris’ previous accomplishments comprise numerous academic and research awards, including the William VanWagenen Fellowship from the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, the Western Neurosurgical Society Resident Award for research on minor traumatic brain injury, the many scientific articles, and books she has authored, and her humanitarian activities, as well as, the recognition she has been afforded by her native land where she was awarded the National Road Safety Council Award for outstanding contribution in traumatic brain injury.
Really though, even as we think of gender parity, it is well to consider Dr. Odette Harris not as that woman on the face of Essence because something about her is exclusive, after all, Dr. Odette has more than twenty (20) years practice and over forty (40) publications, but as the everyday woman who could easily grace the covers of any magazine as a testament to how her ordinary days were invested to create her outstanding achievement of today.
For Dr. Odette Harris, her days began as she was inspired by others who were already pressing for progress. Harris felt empowered having a science teacher at her all-girls high school. Harris viewed science as integral to mathematics and embraced her sciences as the key to becoming a doctor; her dream job. As Harris continued her undergraduate studies at Dartmouth College, she worked at surrounding herself with “strong women” laying that solid foundation to progress from dream to reality.
During her time at Dartmouth, Harris met with the intertwined challenges of gender and race, but she kept her focus and excelled. It was not until medical school that it became more apparent that Harris was the only African American female in her 1996 class and one of two women in residency. She noted that her mentor was a white man from the East Coast and how persons at Stanford, recognizing her skills and talents, encouraged her to enter the field of neurosurgery.
While Dr. Odette Harris recognizes her historical achievement of being the first female African-American Professor of Neurosurgery at Stanford University, she hopes, like her own mentor, to break the gender and race barrier and inspire both women and students of all colours. Essentially, Harris endorses championing greater diversity and inclusivity in science. https://www.stanforddaily.com/2018/03/09/odette-harris-named-americas-first-female-african-american-neurosurgery-professor-at-stanford/
Even so, in no measure can her accomplishment be watered down. Dr. Odette Harris noted of her experience in medical school during an interview, “I could list probably a hundred different experiences where I was asked to empty the garbage or take out the trays, clean out the toilets when I was just there to use the bathroom myself,” Harris said. “My [male] co-resident used to always say to the patient, “She’s our chief.” Even then, her accomplishments would be inspiration to the up and coming.
Actually, according to Harris, she does not so much think she has paved the path for them or any other girl per se in as much as she has shown what is possible. In terms of girls in science, Harris has noted how the changing landscape provides a variety of options for outstanding contributions now, outside of or in addition to being a medical doctor or Ph.D. She noted engineer Debbie Sterling, who founded GoldieBlox, the award-winning children’s multimedia company which translates science into games and toys.
Dr. Odette Harris does note, however, the wide distance yet uncovered in terms of women’s presence in leadership positions at Universities and other settings. Overall though, Dr. Harris views the prospects as hopeful and inviting for her two daughters and other young girls.
By Kerriann Toby
Kerriann Toby holds a Master of Counselling and Bachelor of Psychology. She is a dynamic therapist, trained mediator; and educator since 2000. In addition to being a trained educator, mediator, and therapist, she is a certified Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) Professional. Kerriann has also trained in cyber counseling and holds clinical registration with Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) & Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association (CCPA).
In mid-October 2015 she initiated operations of KarryOn geared toward the provision of a variety of enhancement and developmental services for the individual, groups and the organization; e-Coaching/Counseling, Mediation, EAP Services and the creative presentation of psycho-social information. She can be reached at email@example.com.