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12 Jun 2018


Gender inequity remains a significant challenge within the medical profession, as in much of our society. We’ve had gender parity among medical students since 1990, yet the trickle up approach hasn’t worked. Progress to parity at supervisory and leadership levels has stalled. There are large gender pay gaps for equally trained and skilled professionals in all craft groups. And even where women doctors are primary breadwinners for their families, they tend to shoulder a greater burden of childcare and domestic work.

No doubt there’s been a cultural shift in recognising the importance of equitable and diverse participation and representation. We also know that young people now broadly hold very equitable ideals for how work and family demands will be shared. But we've too often assumed that by saying gender equity should happen, that it simply will.

So why aren’t best intentions enough?

This passive assumption ignores the context of the systems in which we work, which were built for medical men and the women supporting them at home. The literature suggests that equitable expectations are derailed when they start to clash with workplace policies, which remain rooted in traditional gender norms, which are most obvious after a couple has a child. Existing policies ensure that the path of least resistance is the traditional one: for women to take the majority of responsibility for child bearing and rearing, while men remain fully engaged in the workforce.

Common problems with current workplace policies, and therefore targets for change, include:

  • Inequitable parental leave (in health, specifically almost non-existent paternity leave);
  • Lack of support for return to work during lactation;
  • Lack of accessible childcare, especially to meet the demands of shift and on call workers;
  • Inflexible training pathways, and inequitable access to flexible arrangements; and
  • Lack of access to relief cover for employees on parental leave, and a requirement for individual departments to recruit and fund any relievers.

To be clear, this is not just a women’s issue. We feel the brunt of it professionally, but these inequitable policies sell all of us short on one side of the equation or the other.

So how can changing something like parental leave help find greater balance in our reality? Let me give a personal example.

My first baby is due in August. Where I work in NSW, female medical officers can access 14 weeks paid maternity leave, yet men are entitled to just one week of paid paternity leave. If my partner were a doctor, that’s not much of an incentive for him to take on parenting while I gets back to my career. In fact the path of least resistance would be for me to continue to stay home beyond 14 weeks if neither of us would get paid to anyway, and if childcare is an issue it’s more likely to be me who returns part time. Again, because at that point in the decision tree, despite our ideals, traditional gender norms are maintaining along the path of least resistance.

Luckily, my partner is not a doctor. He works for a tech company that has prioritised gender equity as part of its professional culture, and uses its systems to create this ideal.

At his company, every new parent is entitled to three months paid parental leave. If you are the person giving birth to a child, you get an additional six weeks of paid recovery leave. To me, this neatly defines an equitable workforce policy: it recognises a biologically imperative difference in our responsibilities, but doesn't overstate it, and seeks to enact equality wherever possible.

Practically, it means my family is more able to realise our aim of equal parenting and workforce participation. I will return to work full-time after six months to get on with my second fellowship while my partner not only supports that transition, but up-skills to be an equal parent and home-life participant in years to come. Our culture will be defined by the system in which it exists.

For those of you who support gender equity in your hearts but find it hard to action in your departments, I hope you will join me in addressing these practical barriers which are likely to see the best bang for your well-intentioned buck.

Published: 12 Jun 2018