To celebrate International Women’s Day this week I am handing over the keyboard and giving the blog to obstetrician Dr Amber Moore.
Dr Moore is a highly experienced, well-respected doctor who has delivered thousands of babies with us at St Vincent’s Private, she is also a passionate writer and has written an engaging piece for all of us to consider.
I would encourage you to read the length of the article as there are many great insights and stories to reflect and saver.
“Remember the school formal? Gosh! Look at what we are wearing! Remember being that insecure even though we were clearly young and gorgeous!”
A month ago I sat with a group of women at a barbeque. Most of them accomplished, professional women. Two of them had been to school together and shared a photo from the 80’s – all permed hair, taffeta and bright lipstick. Everyone agreed that the sparkly-eyed teenagers looked happy; the world at their feet, bonded by friendship, glowing and slim. The women laughed at the thoughts of their previous youthful insecurity. I disagreed. “You know, I think most women continue to be insecure throughout their lives. They just learn to hide it better”. One by one they ashamedly agreed. Actually, they all continued to struggle with insecurity with work, relationships, parenting and appearance.
So as we celebrate International Women’s Day, I think we need to reflect upon how far women have come, but mostly how far we have to go. Not to just reach equality with men with regards to pay or position, but to reach equality as human beings comfortable in our own skin. The theme of ‘Press for Progress’ reinforces to me that we still have a long way to go, but every woman needs to continue to advance the welfare of women in every aspect of their lives. We are not there yet.
Most recently the #MeToo ‘movement’ has been hailed as a marvellous milestone of the sisterhood finally acknowledging the reality of sexual assault, sexual harassment, manipulation and oppression. It makes one wonder how it has taken so long for the ‘beautiful people’ of Hollywood to call this behaviour out. I think it is for one main reason. Insecurity. Most women (and men) in any industry are reluctant to blow the whistle on inappropriate, or even criminal, behaviour because they are not secure enough to know if they will be supported, if they will be fired, if they will be passed over, if they will be targeted. The saying ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’ is equally applicable to women. It is not necessarily always ‘evil’ that needs to be vanquished. Sometimes it is oppression; sometimes loss of chance or loss of choice. I choose to rephrase that saying as ‘the only thing that is necessary for the triumph of the continued inequality of women is for good women (and men) to do nothing’. So I ask myself ‘what have I done in my own life to try to stop the continued inequality of women. To help answer this question, there are three things I ask myself:
- Am I giving opportunities to women?
Women have represented the majority of VCE graduates and medical graduates for almost 2 decades. However, in the medical specialties they remain in the minority – only about 40% are in specialties, with some specialties such as orthopaedics and neurosurgery being almost completely comprised of males with no significant change on the horizon. There are many reasons why women may choose not to pursue these specialties, but it is almost certainly the truth that they are underrepresented in the specialties in part due to a lack of opportunity. It may be they are not encouraged to apply, they are not mentored during their training or they fear a loss of opportunity to have children and family by embarking upon specialty training. It is certainly NOT because they are less capable. The specialty training programmes are particularly (and in some ways justifiably) long and arduous. Nobody wants to be operated upon by someone who has not reached a prescribed level of competency. However, the overwhelming pressure for women to dedicate far more than the commonly worked 35 hours per week for years on end during their possible childbearing years may seem too great to take on specialty training. So we have to continue to press for medical specialties to offer training that is both rigorous but flexible enough for women to not deny themselves an opportunity to try it. Often prospective specialty trainees are nervous to take on specialty training but as women doctors, and particularly those already in the specialties, we need to encourage young women to consider speciality training and take action to enable them to have opportunities to pursue further training. It may be in offering to have them assist surgery, or to have a chat over a coffee about their dreams. It may be to make women aware of relevant conferences or courses that might further their progress. It might be to give a talk or tutorial that inspires a woman to consider speciality training. It might be to give encouragement to a more mature woman who might have children who are growing up and is considering pursuing a speciality after years working as a part-time GP. Of course, in any other industry these same principles apply.
- Am I Visible?
If you happen to be in a profession where females are the minority it can be difficult to be visible to those outside. Yet visibility is vital to help encourage younger women to continue to join the profession. The more women are seen to be equally capable of a job, the more visibility they receive. Though we can sometimes feel visible, it needs to be a constant. Do young girls regularly see female specialists in the media, do they see them in hospitals, in magazines on social platforms? If so, is this a positive representation? What more can female doctors do to remind all women that medicine is not just a job for men? One thing that men are generally quite good at is acting confidently and having the self-esteem to give things a go. The innate insecurity of women can prevent women trying things or asking questions that men more naturally seem to be able to do. I see this in women trainees. Often the women need encouragement to push themselves surgically or learn a new technique where male trainees need to sometimes be reigned in from performing procedures that are too advanced for their training level or ability. Of course, it is only in performing tasks that we obtain experience and hone our skills. Women need to moderate their lack of confidence due to inexperience to have the courage to learn skills and practice their technique. Junior women doctors need to see more experienced women doctors acting confidently and being active, respected and equal members of a medical team to consider that they can aspire to do it themselves.
- Who am I mentoring?
It can sometimes feel as though so much has already been done to progress the rights of women. But it doesn’t take long to look around and really notice the lack of female leaders in all aspects of our community. The baby girls I deliver today are still born into a world where their gender will limit their opportunities and they will need to work hard to be accepted into roles where few women have previously been. I have tried, and continue to try, to press for progress by taking action to help diminish the insecurity of women and in doing so give them the self-confidence to pursue their lives in the most meaningful and satisfying way possible. In my own life I have mentored several younger women through the process of considering obstetric training and actively applying. I have followed them through their training, provided professional and personal advice to help them complete the programme and will continue to help them in their more senior roles. Sometimes mentoring a woman means not accepting defeat. I have a special mentee whom I have assisted academically through her VCE years, taken her to University Open Days and assisted financially in her quest to become a doctor. She comes from a developing country, was separated from her parents for 3 years until she could obtain permission to come to Australia, and only learned English (apart from that taught at a basic level at her school) upon arrival in Australia in year 10. She did remarkably well in VCE to get a place in Science at Latrobe University. She contacted me early last year to say that, on her own initiative she had applied to, and been accepted into, Bioscience at Melbourne University with a desire to then do Medicine. I was ecstatic for her. Not only that she had obtained a much-coveted position, but that she had shown the self-confidence and initiative to do it all by herself. However, like all fairy tales, there are bumps along the way. She found the standard much higher and struggled. She failed 2 subjects and called me on a rainy Friday night to tell me she was dropping out. She apologised for letting me down. I was ignited into action. No. That was not going to happen. I simply refused to accept her surrender. I told her that all stories of success are littered with smaller defeats. What defines the story of success is not the wins, but the ability to weather the defeats and go on. I offered assistance. I refused to allow her to quit. She rallied. She did not quit. She accepted a supplementary exam and repeated a subject the following semester. End of year results: every subject successfully passed including a credit, distinction and a high distinction.
We all have a responsibility to our younger generation. However, in my field, I believe women doctors have a responsibility to actively seek out younger women and encourage them to consider all fields of medical endeavour. We need to increase the self-esteem of young women, help them control and banish their insecurities. We need to continue to press hard to continue the progress that our mothers and grandmothers started until we get the job done.