A month ago, Kristine Ziwica wrote on the ‘motherhood penalty’ that women face, with pay and career progression stalling when women become parents. In the wake of her published statistic that there are only 751 female surgeons in Australia and New Zealand, a number of us asked the question “why”?
Of course lots of people have studied what the barriers are to women choosing, getting into, and succeeding in careers in surgery, and perhaps I will write on that another day.
But for many women, the very first stumbling block is the pervasive advice that “women can’t have it all”, occasionally modified by people such as Quentin Bryce to “women can have it all, just not all at once”. Every woman in medicine, regardless of what career path she has expressed an interest in, has been forced to listen to this ‘advice’ on multiple occasions, but especially so when expressing an interest in a surgical career.
This has always perplexed me for a number of reasons. Firstly, ‘it’ and ‘all’ are deliberately vague terms in this oft repeated aphorism. Presumably, the phrase refers vaguely to concepts such as family, children, good relationships, career progression, equal pay, leisure time, happiness, gold plated toilet seats and sharks with laser beams on their heads… as you can see I am always a little unclear on this.
Secondly, looking around me, what I do see is a whole lot of women who are doing pretty well. If I look at virtually all the female surgeons in my wider sphere, increasingly, these women do have ‘unicorn husbands’ who do a reasonable or even equitable share of the parenting and household labour.
They have children who they have good relationships with. They work part time and generate a decent income. They have leisure time and interests outside medicine. They work in large and busy units and often have subspecialised skills that give them a professional edge. They are really good doctors and well respected by colleagues and patients. They have happy marriages. So, I wonder, why are we constantly pulling young female medical students and doctors aside and giving them this dire warning that they can’t have it all? Are gold plated toilets seats and laser-enabled sharks all that critical?
On the other hand, I see so many male surgeons struggling. Working long hours, not seeing their children, with relationships that are struggling. I see male trainees who feel they cannot support their wives after the birth of their babies, who feel they cannot take time off work, who feel they cannot take a day off when their kids are sick. I see male junior doctors and medical students already making sacrifices in order to stay late to prove their interest, who are already prioritising work ahead of friends, family, relationships. And this is hardly new. The senior ranks of surgery are filled with those who have poor relationships with their children and who have burned through multiple marriages, to those with long lists of regret over holidays not gone on, books not read, meals not shared with friends.
It would seem that no one, whether they be men or women, can have everything, if by everything we mean a career like a traditional high flying man, and a home life like a traditional stay at home mother. There are simply not hours enough in the day.
MP Tim Hammond shocked a nation when he conceded this and resigned from Parliament. He should be congratulated for doing so.
Not because I think that everyone should make the same decision – but because it has shone a light on a universal truth.
While we continue to caution and scold women for combining a career in politics with parenting (I’m looking at you, Angela Shanahan), why aren’t we issuing such warnings and dire predictions and doomsday advice to the menfolk, who have clear and documented issues with ‘having it all’.
Why are we lecturing women, instead of changing our workplaces so that all workers can have an acceptable work-life balance? This is clearly not just an issue for women.
So these days, I don’t caution my female junior doctors. I give them practical advice on how to manage work and family, and even then only when they ask it. But I have long conversations with junior male doctors. I warn them that no one will ever caution them as to what a busy career can do to your private life if you are not careful. I assure them that working part time is an option, despite what anyone else might tell them – and that there are plenty of surgeons who do just that and still take very good care of their patients. I explain what demands a young family places on a person, and warn them that they only have a single shot at watching small people grow, and forming a good relationship with them. I advocate for them when their wives have babies, or exams, or can’t leave work when their kids are sick. It is the young men who need to be told that a career can wait, but babies cannot. It is the young men who need to be told that they can’t have it all.
So I want to congratulate Tim Hammond. Not for resigning, and not for putting his family ahead of his career – but for doing it in the face of what society expects of men. And for opening a conversation that we should all be having with the young men in our lives. With much greater urgency that we need to be talking to the young women about it. The young women have already thought about it, and seem to have it worked out.