‘We’ve all been mistaken for the secretary’

4 minute read

Australian women are still struggling for equality in healthcare leadership, and the pandemic did not help.

Despite women regularly making up more than half of new med school enrolments, researchers warn that the fight for gender equality in Australian medicine is far from over.

Women make up three-quarters of the country’s healthcare workforce; one in four working Australian women is employed in the health sector.

Health leadership, however, is a different story.

Fewer than half of Australia’s medical deans, public healthcare board chairs, chief medical officers and private hospital CEOs are women.

Just two AMA presidents have been female in the association’s 60-year history.

General practice has performed slightly better, with six female RACGP presidents over the same time period.

While it can be easy to assume that women in Australia have already fought the gender equality battle and won, women’s health researcher Professor Helena Teede told The Medical Republic that a lot of progress had been lost during the pandemic.

“The imbalance between the [makeup of the] frontline workforce and the leadership is quite stuck,” she said.

“And it’s not getting better, especially not through covid – the statistics are showing that we’ve plateaued.”

Professor Teede is the chief investigator for the Australian arm of the Advancing Women in Healthcare Leadership initiative, which is supported by a mix of government funding, grants and 21 industry partners.

Too often, she’s heard female doctors tell stories about being mistaken for another member of the healthcare team.

“Every woman’s got countless stories about how they’ve walked into rooms as the doctor or the surgeon and it’s been assumed that they’re the secretary,” Professor Teede said.

The AMA, which is one of the lead partners on the project, collaborated with AWHL to run a workshop last week where it set priorities to create a strategy that will support women to take on leadership positions within the organisations.

“The evidence is crystal clear that organisations increasing their share of women in leadership perform better overall,” president Professor Steve Robson said. “We are committed to increasing women’s representation in the AMA leadership and representation structure and promoting this across the medical profession.”

The AMA has set a target of women eventually holding 50% of federal AMA representative positions.

Affirmative action targets like these, Professor Teede said, can be perceived as unfair or appear to undermine merit.

She would like to see that thinking changed.

“Merit perpetuates bias and privilege,” she said.

“[Often] people frame the best person for the job as someone who looks like all the other leaders who they are interviewing – someone who’s gone to Philadelphia and done a cardiac fellowship because they could, because their wife went over with their kids and allowed them to do it – as opposed to a woman who can’t drag their three children and husband or wife halfway across the world.”

“Then you’ve got career disruptions and difficulties with conference attendance.

“All the traditional metrics we have for success, for standing out – there are barriers for women to do that.”

When considering the best person for a job, Professor Teede argued, it can be more enlightening to consider what opportunities they have or haven’t been afforded.

“Is the person the one who went to Philadelphia for two years [the better pick] or is it actually the person who stayed here and built your unit?” she said.

Professor Teede also emphasised that leadership should be measured in the influence that a person has over their work environment, rather than their formal job description.  

“Targets with transparent reporting can be quite powerful to force people to think about those things like merit differently,” she said.

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