Bias remains the biggest issue for women in medical research

‘You’ll never be brilliant, because you have a working wife’: Bias remains the biggest issue for women in medical research

Before her presentation at the Kirby Institute to a crowd of 100 guests, I pulled Dr Louise Purton aside to ask her a few questions about her career to date as a medical researcher in Australia.


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Inevitably, we touched on the subject of gender discrimination. When I asked Dr Purton, who leads the Stem Cell Regulation Laboratory at the University of Melbourne, what has been the most frustrating challenge in her line of work she answered quickly. “Bias,” she said.

“There is still a lot of bias against women researchers, and the only way to improve things is to implement 50/50 funding for men and women, as well as set measures specifically for people of colour.” 

Dr Purton was one of four women in research and medicine invited by UNSW Medicine to share their career trajectories and discuss the ways they have balanced work as a professional and as family members with domestic responsibilities.

PhD candidate Kerith-Rae Dias kicked off proceedings by describing her unique position as a clinical genomics and neuroscience researcher and first generation woman of colour. She spoke of the indelible mark her parents made on her as a young person growing up in Bombay.

“My father was a marine engineer and over the dinner table, he’d quiz me and my brother on things like what is gravity, or, what is the speed of light?” Dias remarked.

The family emigrated to New Zealand, where Dias explained she learned to ‘change her accent’ according to the groups she was moving within, another example of a successful professional woman code-switching in order to ‘fit in’. 

Dias obtained her undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Auckland, before moving to Western Australia to pursue her Masters in Forensic Science. 

Since then, she has travelled to London and Montreal on research projects. When she returned from having her first child, her employer advised her that her role no longer existed. She later discovered that the role had simply been re-titled. And the new person in the role? A young man who was less qualified than Diaz, who was earning a salary that was 40% more than what she’d received before she went on parental leave.

“There is a clear lack of inclusive structures for returning mothers,” Dias said. “And we need that to change. The needle is finally moving, as long as we continue to build on mentoring and sponsoring opportunities for women.” 

Dr Clare Arnott is a cardiologist at RPA, and shares parenting duties with her husband who is also a cardiologist. She told audiences that recently, her husband was told by a male senior medical professional that he was “a good researcher, but you’ll never be brilliant, because you have a working wife.” 

There was a sharp inhale from audiences. Dr Arnott is one of a minority of women in cardiology. In fact, in Australia, only 15% of cardiologists are women. 

“What does equality mean to me?” Dr Arnott asked. “I’d hope my gender is irrelevant to the tables I get invited to. I want to be me based on merit.”

“My biggest challenges have been having a child during advanced training, learning how to advocate for myself and finally, asking for help. When I got back from having a child, there was no discussion about altered work systems. I was scared to ask for help. Even while in a short amount of time, I went through seven episodes of mastitis. I was embarrassed that I was putting others through stress.” 

She told audiences not to forget that we all have “a right to be supported.” She also credited her career to joining the Franklin Women Mentoring Program, where she was mentored by leading female professionals. “You must ask yourself constantly; Why was I not invited? How am I making myself seen? Am I doing enough to be seen?”

Dr Louise Purton flew up from Melbourne to deliver her presentation on her pathway to career success. At three, she was diagnosed with severe intestinal abscess. The antibiotics that were used to treat her eventually caused severe hearing loss, and it was not until she was 19 when she had her first cochlear implant.

Dr Purton spoke of the importance of fighting despite adversities.

“Having hearing difficulties didn’t stop me from doing what I wanted to do,” she said. “It didn’t stop me from reaching the top, as hard as it’s been.”

Dr Purton battled through funding loss, professional abuse, betrayals and bias at all levels. Yet she persevered.

“Bias is the biggest reason why we’re not getting supported,” she said. “It’s critical we call out the bias and discrimination when we see it.”

Dr Purton also believes that having more than one director in organisations will be better. “I’d like to see diversity and inclusivity in leadership roles simultaneously. With that, you get more understanding for what people go through, and have people think outside the box.”

When audiences asked the panel what they think men can do to contribute to improving the reality for women in medicine, the panel agreed that a range of strategies can be approached.

“Challenge yourself by being around people who are different, people who look and think different from you,” Dr Arnott said. “Be inclusive and challenge each other. We need the support and advocacy from men too.” 

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