Enabling gender equality in medicine

Medical specialists have come together at the Royal Australasian College of Physicians’ (RACP) 2018 Congress to talk about ways the profession can enable, support and promote women into senior leadership roles.

Presenting the annual Priscilla Kincaid-Smith Oration, aptly named after the RACP’s first female President, clinician and academic, Professor Helena Teede said there are many reasons why women may not pursue or succeed in attaining senior leadership roles in health. 

“Evidence shows that barriers for career progression for women can present around capacity, but also around other areas such as capability (or rather confidence on their capability),” Professor Teede explained.  

“Evidence shows that capability challenges for women relates not to our ability to do the job. Quite the opposite is shown in terms of the clinical performance of female doctors. However, in general women are less confident about their capability and are more qualified and senior before they apply for new roles. 

“A cultural shift is needed here among women and among our leaders to mentor and engage women in understanding their capability and promoting them deservedly for opportunities.” 

Female physicians are often managing multiple roles including work life and home life. 

“Women in medicine often juggle multiple roles, as physicians and some as mothers, and their capacity to focus on their career can be limited,” Professor Teede said.

“Workforce data shows that women in medicine work as many hours as men do until their early 30s. At this point, coinciding with the general onset of parenting, female doctors tend to decrease their working hours primarily during childhood pre-school years. 

“Overall, women then increase to significantly contribute to the workforce after what amounts to a relatively small-time impact over their life long career. This disruption comes at vital career stages, challenging the capacity of women for career development and progression.”  

Flexibility as well as strategic system wide approaches to career protection and progression are critical during these career stages.

“Mentoring, planning and support are all important to ensure the job remains compatible with family life,” Professor Teede said.

“Women can overcome these challenges if they are adequately supported by the system, including fair maternity leave and part time opportunities and if well mentored during these life stages.”

Proactively planning for different career stages is also very important across different life and career stages. 

“When we are making life and career decisions, we need to be strategic about what is most important to us. It’s a matter of realising we can’t do everything, but focus on what is most important to us, plan for it and be relentless in our pursuit of it, just as our talented, diligent, exceptional young women have been to become specialist physicians.” 

More broadly, she said there also needs to be a cultural shift in medicine, where the environment becomes more balanced, less competitive, more collaborative and focused on community benefit and impact. 

“Medicine, healthcare and medical research have become so incredibly competitive. There is evidence that we need to move to a more balanced collaborative model focused on delivering community benefit and that generally, with more leadership balance and more female leaders, we are more inclined to strive for this collective benefit. We know from other sectors that more diverse leadership including across gender and ethnicity, brings benefit.

“Fundamental to seeing women in more leadership positions, is the need for greater diversity in current senior roles and a greater representation of women. Senior women then need to encourage more diversity and enable other women to progress in their careers.”

Self-advocacy is also key to seeing more female doctors in senior leadership roles, yet is not always a strong characteristic woman bring to the workplace. 

“In my experience, I find that some women are not particularly good at advocating for themselves especially when they are dealing with work and don’t see themselves as being able to contribute like others around them.

“When mentoring I encourage women to advocate for themselves objectively as if they were advocating for another.

“For women who don’t feel they fit with the leadership role models, remember diversity is important and we absolutely have a right to be at the table and we do not need to be the same as everyone else currently there or nothing will change.”
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