As a medical student, when I passed a senior female doctor in the hallways I was in awe, as were my female friends and colleagues.
We would whisper excitedly amongst ourselves about how incredible that woman was, knowing her by name as she was (often) a lone wolf in her field. Highly regarded, well respected, these women were our idols because they embodied something we all wanted to be and just by seeing them, we though that perhaps, we could too.
There is a saying that you can’t be what you can’t see and for years, visibility has been the main tool medical practitioners have seemed to lean on in order to counteract inequality in gender in our profession. Through formal events, to informal means, online and in person, women in medicine have reached for increasing the number of visible role models from all walks of life.
I loved being a part of these kinds of movements, either in the audience or at the lectern. As woman after woman told how they juggled family life, rose through the ranks, achieved academic success, faced life crises and held down a day job, I was inspired, sometimes to the point of being starry eyed.
I could not, however, escape the fact that something was missing, a vital weapon in our armamentarium. It was a few years later when it dawned on me what that was exactly.
I attended a women’s networking events where the speakers were male and female and they spoke on their area of expertise, from finance to health and self-care. The speakers were giving the audience of professional women vital lessons and tools to advance themselves that moved from the observational to the actionable. It was the next, vital step from, “I can do it so you can too” to “here’s how you do it”.
This particular event then culminated with the group offering charitable services to victims of domestic violence, which was an even bigger step. Often our professional women’s networking events are directed at helping a small section of the female medical population, quietly forgetting responsibility to women who do not have the same privileges.
This event was my lightbulb moment and it showed me what I wanted to do from that moment on. Since that time, I no longer talk about my story but rather I use any sort of privilege or platform that I have to spread the word about action and demonstrate it, through big and small actions in my daily life.
International Women’s Day in 2018 had a theme, to ‘press for progress’. It was the call to arms that really embodied what I’d observed when it came to actionable change. International Women’s Day needs to be more than a hashtag. It should be more than a nod to gender and a time to reinforce the actions we need to take.
At an event for IWD, I issued a challenge for women to make every day a day to, genuinely, #PressforProgress.
For me, press for progress has much more potential than a hashtag or catchy phrase. It is a call to take matters into our own hands, so to speak. It is a reminder that every single day, women as individuals but especially as a group, can take actions that are big and small, and not merely demand or wait for progress, but to create it. Together, we must explore the ways in which we can force the issue of gender equality, every single day.
In daily life and workplace assessments, disparity in the way we speak to and about women reinforces stereotypes, many of which are negative or derogatory. Aggressive when a woman is assertive or a disturbing ease at which we label women a bitch or worse are just some of the ways we reinforce biases that women are incapable or inadequate. In workplace assessments, women are more likely than men to be described in emotional subjective ways with little attention paid to concrete achievements.
Correcting language is a daily, relatively simple way we can challenge bias. Never referring to another woman with the barrage of negative terms like bitch, bossy, aggressive or emotional and rather focusing on objective, measurable terms that focus on her achievements highlight her success and remove the emotions that perpetuate negative stereotypes. And as Tina Fey said in ‘Mean Girls’, never calling another woman names since the fact that we do, makes it okay for everyone else to do so is an important way we can combat bias.
Mentoring is a way in which we can ‘leak proof’ pipelines and ensure that women can share a career trajectory that is not different from their male counterparts. Mentoring, when coupled with sponsorship and coaching when appropriate can help women ‘lean in’, access career opportunities and ascend the career ladder. While we assume that mentors must be already established and successful, we can all mentor those who are in a sense, below us in the career jungle gym.
I believe it is the responsibility of all women to act as a mentor to another woman. Either by formal or informal means, extend your hand to another woman and help her tackle her career, gifting her with some of your experience, knowledge and connections. Since a mentor who is also a woman may not always be available, it’s important to look beyond your own career path or even your profession to find a mentor or even be a mentee.
Madeline Albright famously described the special place in hell reserved for women who fail to help other women and it’s become a catch cry for the sisterhood. However, women are still maligned for being dismissive or sometimes directly aggressive to other women in their sphere.
Success is not a zero-sum game. And as a group, women are far more likely to have success when we raise one another up. This does not exclude healthy competition or robust discussion but in an environment when we are besieged alone, we will rise when we stand together.
Check & share your privilege
Efforts around women’s networking and gender equality are often aimed at professional, educated women which obviously excludes a great swathe of the female population. The focus on educated women is a strong criticism of modern feminism.
Checking and sharing your privilege can take many forms, but ultimately involves recognising that there is no single picture for all women. Educated women in Australia might not be equal to educated men, but they are far more equal than other groups.
Being aware and educated about the disadvantages and dynamics facing women from diverse cultural backgrounds or ethnic heritage is critical. There are several amazing charities that specifically recognise this and support different groups, including Share the Dignity, One Girl, Hey Sis or The Malala Fund where funds go directly to addressing the sources of inequality for these women.
We can drown oceans
Poet Rupi Kaur writes, “The kindest thing my father said to me was, women like you drown oceans”. An ocean is a tremendous thing to drown and when you look at the magnitude of gender inequality around the world, affecting women of all colours, ages and backgrounds, it is easy to see this as an ocean.
Press for progress was a mere reminder, a catchy phrase to cement the fact that waiting for change is slow, much slower than we would ever wish for. The time is nigh for women everywhere, to band together and take change in to our own hands, every single day.
The onus is on us all to contribute in big and small ways, every day because I am without any doubt that together we can make the action that will indeed drown oceans.
Dr Nikki Stamp is a cardiothoracic surgeon who wants to inspire & educate. Nikki’s interests include women’s heart health, women in surgery & self-care. Her first book Can you Die of a Broken Heart has just been published.