Anousha Rafi felt determined to pursue a career in medicine after witnessing the hordes of people in her home country, Afghanistan struggle with sickness and injury during the war.
But becoming a female doctor in a country like Afghanistan is riddled with challenges. When Anousha finally became a General Practitioner, she was regularly derided as lesser than her male peers. She faced limited opportunities, and a glaring gender pay gap. She implicitly knew that her life and career would be restricted if she stayed.
So in 2018, after 7 years practicing, Anousha moved to Australia for a better life and new possibilities. She joined Allianz in a case management capacity, but is currently completing exams through the Australian Medical Council to secure her medical license in Australia and become a certified practitioner. She then hopes to pursue a new role as an Injury Management Consultant– a mammoth change from her former life.
We sat down with Anousha recently to discuss her journey, her courage and her ultimate ambition to do more than what was socially expected of her.
While living in Afghanistan, what motivated you to make the initial decision to study and work in medicine?
The first thing that motivated me to become a doctor was seeing all the sick and crippled people in Afghanistan. I wanted to help them in any way that I could. I was also very curious about the human body and wanted to understand the science behind how our body is controlled by our brain. I remember watching a documentary which touched on this when I was younger and it really inspired me to explore my curiosity further.
Has your outlook on your career and passions changed at all since moving to Australia last year?
To be honest, the primary reason for moving to Australia was for security reasons – I wasn’t safe in Afghanistan as a woman. I also wasn’t presented the same opportunities in Afghanistan as you are as a woman in Australia, so moving here has made me more determined than ever to pursue my career in medicine in ways I wasn’t able or allowed to do before. My career was limited from the beginning because female medical students in Afghanistan are already labelled as they can only be gynaecologists, but there is so much more you can do and learn in the field of medicine. Female doctors are denied the necessary training or career opportunities to explore other options. There is a misconception in the culture of Afghanistan that female doctors are not as competent as male doctors.
I’ve experienced this in daily interaction with patients. I once was taking a male patient’s history and he requested that a “proper doctor” be brought in. Proper meaning – a male doctor.
I even experienced this as a student. I was once observing a surgery and a professor said that I didn’t need to waste my time in there because I would be getting married soon and taking care of the home.
This treatment made it feel impossible at times to break through those stereotypes and the taboo of being a woman in medicine.
Today, I am completing my exams through the Australian Medical Council to obtain my medical license in Australia and become a certified practitioner here. It feels incredible to have the ability to choose whatever path I want at any stage in my career for the first time. Once I have completed my certification, I plan to become an Injury Management Consultant at Allianz.
Can you tell us a little bit about your career aspirations over the next 5 years?
I have started from scratch since moving to a new country, but it is through this experience that I have realised my aspirations have evolved from being a General Practitioner. In Afghanistan, there is a strong expectation that a woman needs to manage the house no matter what career she is trying to pursue, due in part to most families living together as large, extended families, which leads to a lot of house work. From cooking and cleaning to childcare, the responsibility lies solely with the women. This means many women in Afghanistan stay at home and forego a career, either because of their responsibilities at home or because their husbands will not allow them to work.
It seems in Australia that both men and women have responsibilities at home and that is accepted here. Now that I have the chance to learn new skills and expand my medical knowledge, as well as through my learnings from life and work in Afghanistan, I am embracing the training opportunities presented to me by Allianz to reach my goal of becoming an Injury Management Consultant.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career to date; both in Afghanistan and in Australia?
The career hurdles in Afghanistan and Australia are very different. In Afghanistan, the hurdles I faced were predominately around gender discrimination and trying to form a medical career in a male-dominated society. There is also a wide gender pay gap in Afghanistan, which made it difficult to recognise my self-worth when I was doing the exact same role as a male but being paid significantly less.
In Australia the biggest hurdle I have faced is balancing my personal and professional life. Now that I am building a social life – making friends and going out together – I’ve never had this before so I am learning how to balance the two for the first time in my life, which for me is really exciting!
How did you work around this?
It is very difficult to change a deep societal issue, so I found the only way to overcome the hurdles in Afghanistan was to just not let things get to me. I accepted that this was how things were in Afghanistan, and that every other female is in the same position as me. But while I accepted this, I still strived to do my best work and learn as much as I can.
In Australia, it’s really been important for me to embrace my ability to actually have a social life outside of work and home, while still striving to do my best and expand my career.
What do you value most about your current workplace?
Allianz has a zero-discrimination policy and the company’s diversity and inclusion initiatives are wonderful. It is a place where you feel included and everyone makes every effort to show they are more than willing to help you – everyone is supportive of you and respects each other. It is such a different work environment compared to my life in Afghanistan, and I am excited by all of the opportunities and support provided by Allianz – specifically in terms of my career progression.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing women in corporate Australia currently? And what can be done to change this?
I’ve touched on this, but the biggest challenge I see for women working in corporate Australia is finding that balance between personal and professional life. Many women across the corporate world are of the opinion they have to choose between having a family and being successful in their career. This was my societal norm in Afghanistan. So I think organisation’s need to be more vocal about flexible working initiatives.
Lastly, in my opinion, job applications should be received without mention of gender. This way someone can be considered for a role with an un-biased approach based on experience and qualifications rather than if they are male or female.