Women account for just 11 per cent of consultant surgeons in Australia and New Zealand. The road to becoming a specialist is far from easy, with years of extensive study and long days of hospital-based training. When you’re in the business of saving lives, work-life balance can be an elusive luxury.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, we spoke to five powerhouse surgeons who have shattered the glass ceiling. Throughout their careers they’ve encountered hurdles, unconscious bias and off-hand sexist remarks, but they credit their success to mentors who taught them a high-powered career doesn’t have to come at the cost of a rich family life.
The tide is slowly changing. The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS), the key body responsible for surgical training and standards, has put forward ambitious targets for women entering the profession. Women now account for nearly 40 per cent of members on its governing Council.
These trailblazing surgeons hope their stories will inspire young women to follow suit.
Dr Michelle Atkinson – Orthopaedic Surgeon
“Orthopaedics is still a very male-dominated field. Approximately 4.3 per cent of surgeons are female, but we’re making progress. This year nearly 25 per cent of our new orthopaedics trainees are female.”
Dr Atkinson has been a surgeon for two decades. As if helping people with severe spinal issues wasn’t enough, she said the desire to “give back in a meaningful way” prompted her to join the Navy Reserves.
She spends at least four weeks every year teaching navy medics, participating in training exercises or assisting with disaster response efforts.
Dr Atkinson had both her children during her surgical training. When her youngest was six months old the young family took off overseas so she could do further training in hospitals across the US and the UK. Her husband took leave from work to look after the children.
“Being a parent is a challenge for any person. When you’re sharing with your partner that makes it a lot easier,” she said.
Dr Kerin Fielding – Orthopaedic Surgeon
“Our patients deserve the best our profession can give. They will not get this until women are fully part of the profession.”
Based in Wagga Wagga, Dr Fielding was the first woman in New South Wales to become an Orthopaedic Surgeon and only the third in the country.
As a junior doctor she encountered sexist remarks regularly and recalls one senior surgeon saying ‘I don’t want the woman’ when trainees were being paired with their mentors.
“To think we’ve got one quarter female trainees this year is phenomenal,” she said.
In addition to running her surgery practice she has a small side business ‘Kerin Fielding Patisserie’, where she makes wedding cakes and other specialty items. When her four children grew up and moved away from home, she took three separate trips to Paris to become qualified as a Le Cordon Bleu Pastry Chef.
Dr Fielding admits balancing motherhood and her career hasn’t been a walk in the park, but is adamant “really good stuff doesn’t come on a platter”.
“Every day I just think I’ve got the most amazing job,” she said.
Dr Emily Granger – Cardiothoracic Surgeon
“Surgery demands excellence and dedication, but you don’t need to live in the hospital to achieve that. You achieve better outcomes if you’re a balanced individual.”
Dr Granger has performed more than 100 heart and lung transplants during her surgical career and more than 1400 other heart-related operations.
“Seeing a transplanted heart beat for the first time never gets tiring,” she said.
A mother of two girls, Dr Granger said while the balance is difficult, it’s made her a better surgeon.
“I love what I do and often say I’d do it for free, but don’t tell my head of department that!”
She feels positive about the steady progress the profession is making.
“Undoubtedly more women are considering a career in surgery. We want the best surgeons we can get – it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female.”
Dr Cherry Koh – Colorectal Surgeon
“Female surgeon, female CEO, female resident… I hope that one day, no one will feel the need to make that distinction because there will be no need to.”
Growing up in Malaysia, Dr Koh always knew she wanted to be a doctor. She completed her medical degree in Singapore before moving to Australia.
“I couldn’t get into the surgical training program in Singapore. They took one woman for every three men,” she said.
When it comes to sexism in surgery, Dr Koh said most of her experiences have been of unconscious bias.
“I remember a very senior cardiologist said to me ‘What are you doing in surgery? Don’t you want to go and have babies?’”
Dr Koh recently submitted her PHD thesis, while simultaneously tackling the challenges of working and parenting through COVID-19.
A fierce advocate for women in leadership, Dr Koh said it will take more women in positions of power to break the glass ceiling once and for all.
Dr Gemma Olsson – Neurosurgeon
“All women and people from diverse backgrounds should know that a career in surgery is achievable and take the examples of the many outstanding female surgeons who are proof of this.”
Dr Olsson was always going to be a surgeon.
“Even my high school yearbook said that I was most likely to be a brain surgeon,” she said.
Dr Olsson attributes the lack of women in neurosurgery to unreasonable working hours, the difficulty of getting into surgical training courses and greater dropout rates among women.
“Expectations within our professional need to be brought in line with a balanced work life. The idea that long hours equal better care needs to be changed.”
Dr Olsson credits the support of several female surgeons in her early career for helping her overcome these obstacles.
“I looked up to other women with children and they told me ‘Of course you can do it!’