Gender parity in healthcare might be the shot in the arm we need.
A/Prof Nada Hamad (Chair of St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney’s Women in Medicine Group) - SMH 1 Aug 2021
As a doctor and a parent, the ebb and flow of the pandemic – particularly over these last few months with Sydney’s lockdown – has implications for my professional life as it does for my participation at work, as schools and childcare facilities have closed with barely a moment’s notice.
And yet, despite my preoccupation with COVID-19, recent stories about misogyny in politics have still managed to remain front and centre for me – such is their importance.
The recent decision by the Australian Club to continue excluding women takes pride of place. This form of collective commitment and tenacity to maintaining the unfair status quo is truly admirable. I can only imagine all the meetings and discussions with emails back and forth discussing this issue; all the mental and emotional labour that went in to protecting this outcome.
I relate because in medicine a group of extraordinary women over many generations – in Australia and around the world – have been working tirelessly to address misogyny in their own profession.
The public discourse around misogyny in politics is slowly maturing. The recent Four Corners episode Inside the Canberra Bubble and Annabel Crabb’s series Ms Represented resonated in the medical community. Women in medicine fighting this battle have found a sisterhood of shared experience that is inspirational, empowering and brings a sense of collective resolve that will give those who oppose our movement a good run for their money.
In Australia, the evidence shows that women have had gender parity in the nation’s medical schools for decades, but still only represent 28 per cent of medical deans and 12.5 per cent of hospital chief executive officers. These disparities are even greater for First Nations’ women, women of colour, and women with disabilities.
Gender parity in medicine is also a public health issue because the evidence shows that more women in medicine means better patient outcomes. For example, a study in the UK showed that even after accounting for patient, surgeon and hospital characteristics, patients treated by female surgeons had a statistically significant decrease in 30-day mortality. Another US study found that female patients were less likely to survive a heart attack if treated by a male rather than a female physician. During COVID-19, the success of female leaders around the world in managing the pandemic has been a hallmark.
Women in medicine are now more emboldened to speak up and act. We have seen a wave of editorials in medical journals, social media activity and a recent ground-breaking documentary, Picture A Scientist, which exemplifies our lived experiences. While sensational stories of sexual misconduct keep surfacing as the face of misogyny in medicine, these are just the tip of the iceberg.
Systematic exclusion, double standards, financial disparity and bullying are among the litany of other biases that female doctors both endure and witness in the treatment of their female patients. All of which are compounded by racial bias for women of colour.
The presence of misogyny in medicine, like politics, has been met with repeated denial, continued discrimination and systemic barriers to change. There is an assumption that healthcare workers, driven by altruistic intent, are generally beyond reproach. But doctors are human and are subject to human fallibilities, including sexism and racism.
Thanks to social and mainstream media discourse around these issues, women in medicine feel empowered to recognise and call out misogyny in the system, knowing they are not alone. We are bringing science into this discussion, collecting data and creating data-driven arguments and solutions that will stand the test of time. Our resolve is strengthened with the moral imperative that the change we bring will benefit our patients, communities, and country.
It is undeniable that change is coming, and while I admire the resolve of the soon-to-be-obsolete few who stand in our way, I don’t think they stand a chance.