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16 Feb 2016

2015 was perhaps a seminal year for the issue of gender inequity in the medical profession.

The year started with comments about sexual harassment in surgery.

To its credit, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons resisted the urge to deny there was a problem, and instead commissioned an independent Expert Advisory Group (EAG) to investigate its extent. The Group’s report gave a sobering picture of the high prevalence of bullying, discrimination, and sexual harassment in the surgical workforce. I have no doubt that there are implications for the wider medical profession.

It was pleasing that the EAG responded to a number of points put forward by the AMA in its submission, including recognising that commitment to change needs to come from the top, and the importance of increasing gender diversity in senior roles in the College.

A scan of the leadership across the colleges, societies and employers shows limited gender diversity. My own college, the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, is a case in point – currently, there are no women on its board. This under-representation exists despite the dramatic increase in female participation in the medical workforce in recent decades, to the extent that women now outnumber men as graduates of Australian medical schools.

To be sure, the medical profession is not alone in having a small number of women in senior leadership and management roles. According to the Australian Government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency, last year only 9.2 per cent of ASX 500 company directors were women; they comprised 9.2 per cent of ASX 500 executive management personnel; and 23 per cent of Australian university vice-chancellors.

Why does this matter?

A healthier gender balance is essential if the medical profession is to harness the potential of all its members, and reflect the realities of modern medicine in policy and practice.

Like many, I believe that determined leadership is the key to accomplishing lasting change in the culture of our profession. This includes the upper tiers of the colleges and associations, the employers of doctors and, indeed, the AMA itself.

At times the pace of change may seem slow, and the task too difficult; however, the changes that have been demonstrated recently within the culture of the Australian Army show what can be achieved with a determined effort.

There has been considerable debate, and no consensus, as to whether an increase in gender diversity is best accomplished by using mandated targets or quotas. In our submission to the EAG, the AMA expressed support for a voluntary code of practice or a similar document, that includes voluntary targets and timeframes.

I believe this approach is worthy of consideration.

Our goal is clear – to achieve timely and substantial progress towards a leadership of the medical profession that reflects its composition. In turn, we are then more likely to realise the full potential of our abilities as doctors, and to promote a healthier professional culture.

Published: 16 Feb 2016