Why Australian Medicine Needs To Do Better At Promoting Women In Surgery

Girls to the ER.

women in medicine

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James Barry was, by all accounts, a gifted surgeon in the early to mid-1800s. He served as a doctor in the British armed forces, taking charge of military hospitals as Inspector General at the end of his career. Barry was one of the first surgeons to perform a successful caesarean section.

The thing is however, Dr James Barry was actually female. He chose to live life as a man so that he may practice medicine.

Here in 2016, things are a little different. We now live in a time when women’s education is a priority of developed countries. In Australia, more than half of medical students are female; in some universities, that number is as high as 60 percent. It’s a long way from socks down your trousers to be able to do the job. However, being a woman in medicine comes with its own set of challenges in what remains a very male-dominated profession.

I grew up in a house where gender didn’t really factor into my choices. My parents were pretty happy for my brother and I to have equal opportunities in academia, hobbies or sport. We even both tried ice hockey after watching too many Mighty Ducks movies. It wasn’t until I got older that I started to understand that in some people’s minds, gender should factor into my choices.

While studying medicine, I was always going to be a surgeon. I love being able to quite literally remove disease right in front of my eyes. I love the technical and intellectual challenge that comes with being a surgeon. The rewards to be able to dramatically improve someone’s life are incredible. Howver, not everyone agreed with my career path — one of my university classmates told me repeatedly that I would never be a surgeon because “girls don’t do surgery”.

In Australia, around 10 percent of surgeons are women. In my specialty, cardiothoracic (heart and lung) surgery, that number is less than five percent. With an increase in the number of female medical graduates, the number of women pursuing careers in surgery is growing, but we are very far from parity, both in numbers and experiences had during a woman’s career.

In surgery, women are more likely to drop out of surgical training, experience bullying or sexual harassment, get divorced or struggle to get places on boards or academic positions. The reasons behind this behavioural inequality are numerous, but include a lack of role models and a boy’s club culture persisting in medicine. Even as successful doctors, women are still more likely to do more housework or take a lesser job or specialty for her husband’s career, even if her’s would be considered more ‘prestigious’.

Aside from institutional gender biases, women doctors often have a tough time from patients or other staff. I have been mistaken for a nurse, physiotherapist, device representative, and the most junior member of the team (when I am the most senior). I even once had a male patient threaten to discharge himself when he realised his entire surgical team was female. And of course, “bossy,” “bitchy” or “bolshy” are still favoured adjectives for an ambitious, assertive or bright young female doctor. In the minds of our colleagues, our seniors and our society, gender stereotypes are alive, well and extremely annoying.

I have been more fortunate than others in my career. I’ve had some excellent mentors who were cognisant that we do not yet live in a society where people won’t say “Female surgeon. Huh.” or worse. However, not everyone is so fortunate. Increasingly, women doctors are joining together to provide support and mentorship in an industry that still acts, from time to time, like it’s 1940.

In mid-2015, the hashtags #ILookLikeASurgeon and #ILookLikeAnEngineer broke. The idea was for female surgeons to share pictures of ourselves at work or at home, to try and challenge or break down gender stereotypes. To date, the hashtag has been used millions of times and I have met more women surgeons in the last ten months than in my whole career.

Many countries and specialties within medicine have ‘women in medicine’ or ‘women in surgery’ organisations that offer mentor matching, scholarships and career advice. This has even started to take place in our universities, with many Australian medical schools having a ‘women in medicine’ chapter in their med student societies.

I often get asked to speak at these and there are a few things I love about it. Firstly, I meet some incredibly motivated people. Not just other speakers — I am always so impressed by the young people who get that change is needed, get up and make it happen. Secondly, I love trying to show the students that they can have the career that they want, if that is what they desire.

However, one of the greatest things about ‘women in medicine’ organising is the participation of the male students. Gender inequality is not a female problem, it is a human problem. It’s a problem for us all because we should care about what happens to our mothers or sisters or friends. Women in the workforce tend to push for more flexible working conditions to balance family commitments which, in turn, benefits the men who want to be involved in family life (or just life) just as much.

As idealistic as it might sound, I really would love to encourage more women to take on jobs anywhere that are traditionally thought of as ‘men’s work’. I think that the best way to make a change is to be that change. The more women I can encourage into my specialty, the better. I know then we’re getting the best of the best, not just from half the population. I also know that when we have enough diversity in our workforce, that culture will begin to change, hopefully marching us closer and closer towards parity.

Dr Nikki Stamp FRACS is an Australian trained and qualified cardiothoracic surgeon. Her clinical interests include transplantation, minimally invasive surgery and transcatheter valve surgery.

Dr Stamp will be speaking at the Women in Medicine UNSW launch event from 5:30 this afternoon. Details and tickets here.