This feature was created in partnership with Charles Sturt University, which has supported the launch of our new section, Women’s Health News, and has a huge range of study options available for those interesting in exploring new careers and opportunities.You can learn more abour careers in paramedicine here.
Reason number 1: it’s a challenging, interesting and rewarding job. Reason number 2: the paramedicine glass ceiling needs smashing.
Growing up as a sporty and injury-prone kid in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire, Alisha McFarlane spent a fair amount of time in ambulances. In high school, she broke her ankle, and two male paramedics arrived at the school gates to take her to hospital. “I remember when the paramedics showed up, they were extremely calm, so I felt instantly better. They reassured me that I was going to be okay,” says McFarlane of the painful experience, which was eased by the professionalism and kindness of the paramedics.
At 21, McFarlane followed in those paramedics’ footsteps and entered the vocation after finishing her education degree. In her paramedicine class of 30, she was one of six women. “When I started out, all my mentors were men because there were very few women who worked as intensive care paramedics and none in leadership positions,” reflects McFarlane.
That was 2002. In the almost 20 years since she started out in the industry, McFarlane has seen a lot of changes – and wants to see even more.
As a young intensive care paramedic, McFarlane says there wasn’t enough awareness of or support for mental health issues. “Dealing with sick and sometimes verbally and physically abusive patients is challenging, and there wasn’t a lot of knowledge about mental health back then. You just did the job, went home, then did it all again the next day,” she says.
In the last four years, McFarlane has noticed a newfound recognition of mental health, wellbeing and PTSD within her industry.
What hasn’t changed – and desperately needs to – is the lack of women in senior leadership roles within paramedicine. “There’s certainly more female representation in paramedic roles and managerial positions then there was, but that representation seems to stop at middle management,” says McFarlane, who still works casually as an intensive care paramedic, while also lecturing at Charles Sturt University and researching the everyday experience of female paramedics in Australia.
When the Victorian Human Right’s Commission launched an inquiry into ambulance services last year uncovering experiences of bullying, sexism and harassment, McFarlane was not surprised. “I think a lot of women in the industry had been waiting for it. And it felt good to know there was going to be an investigation for the women who courageously spoke out,” she says. “The commission will bring the industry’s issues into the light, which is exactly where they need to be.”
Cultural change starts with recognising the problems and then actively working to fix them, says McFarlane, who has been heartened by the Australasian College of Paramedicine’s decision to launch a ‘Women in Paramedicine’ committee. “Having an arm within the peak body dedicated to women in amazing. It’s a new concept. I mean, women aren’t new to paramedicine, but addressing the issues they face is a new concept,” explains McFarlane.
Her advice to the powers above? Don’t just hire more women, support them, encourage flexible working arrangements and champion them to take up leadership roles.
“In New South Wales, we have a 50/50 gender split in paramedicine now, which is fantastic, but we’re still poorly represented in the leadership team. That needs to change,” explains McFarlane, who is genuinely hopeful for the future of the profession. “Women are just as capable as men and there’s no reason they can’t be in every position in the ambulance service.”
Nearly twenty years after breaking into paramedicine and a lifetime since breaking her ankle, McFarlane is more passionate than ever about her work. Right now, she’s concentrating on her research into the everyday sexism experienced by women in paramedicine. “I’m focused on giving women a voice and sharing those stories with employers and organisations so they can fix it,” she says, to cheers from women around the country.
The benefits of entering the paramedicine profession
There’s never a dull day
“Paramedicine is a really challenging profession. It requires hard work, diligence and brain power, which women have in spades,” says McFarlane, noting that every day as a paramedic is different. “I started my career in Redfern and I grew up super-fast, which I’m grateful for. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you realise you haven’t.”
Opportunities are aplenty
Whether you want to jump out of a helicopter or manage a team, paramedicine is a broad – and ever-growing – field. “There are so many opportunities in the industry,” says McFarlane, who is a real-life example of that. “I always tell my students to take the opportunities that pop up. It’s great to have goals and ambition, but if you look too far ahead, you’ll miss the shiny thing out of the corner of your eye. That’s a Tim Minchin quote, by the way!”
It’s a team effort
In every workplace, it’s the people that make the job. Sure, you go to work every day to earn a living, but also to see your favourite co-worker. In paramedicine, there’s a special closeness between colleagues, says McFarlane: “The ambulance service is an amazing family to be a part of.”
You’ll be humbled
“Looking after someone on their worst day – or their best, if they’ve had a baby – is a very privileged position to be in,” says McFarlane. “I feel proud to stand up in my uniform and to be in the position that I’m in. If you want to be involved in something bigger than yourself and to inspire others, then paramedicine might be the challenge for you.”
There’s a glass ceiling that needs smashing
McFarlane lives by the saying, ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.’ That’s why she wants to see more women in paramedicine – especially at the top. “If you can’t see women in positions of power, it’s hard to imagine yourself there. We need to smash the glass ceiling,” says McFarlane. And everyone knows many hands make smashing glass ceilings light work.
For more information about paramedicine, you can learn more here.