Leading female surgeons on the challenges and changes they would like to see

21 Jul 2021

In a special two-part series of Taking care, we discuss the challenges, rewards and barriers for female surgeons.

Host Susan Biggar speaks with cardiac surgeon Dr Victoria Atkinson, orthopaedic surgeon Dr Vera Sallen, vascular surgeon Dr Pecky De Silva, and breast, endocrine and general surgeon, Dr Christine Lai.

In episode one, surgeons Victoria Atkinson and Vera Sallen offer their unique perspectives on, the training path and some of the barriers and assumptions they’ve encountered while progressing through their careers.

‘We do know that diversity, in terms of a functional, well-balanced diverse [operating] team is good for the patient’s care,’ Dr Sallen said.

Dr Atkinson recalls a moment she realised an incredible transition had occurred:

‘I do remember standing in my theatre once, and I had a female registrar, a female anaesthetist, a female anaesthetic registrar, a female scrub-team and a female perfusionist, and just standing there and going “the ladies have arrived”.’

In episode two, Pecky De Silva and Christine Lai join the conversation adding their experiences.

‘I did have a lot of people discourage me from surgery, and none of them were surgeons. Well-intentioned colleges in other specialities who would say, “you don’t want to do surgery, terrible hours – not for females”,’ Dr Lai said.

Dr De Silva, like the other three women, raises parenting and motherhood as a false barrier to being a surgeon. She felt in the minority in her field:

‘In the hospital (where) I trained we didn’t have a single female consultant surgeon at all.’

‘We need to actively seek out …and be very public about the fact that we need diversity and we need women,’ Dr Atkinson said. ‘It’s not just a nice to have – we need them [in the profession].’ 

Having greater female representation among surgeons is also important for patient safety. Some patients prefer a female surgeon and others can only see women due to their cultural or religious backgrounds.

Our four guests all underscore what they would like to see for the future: flexible working arrangements, a focus on diversity and a higher representation of women in surgery so it is no longer considered unusual for a woman to work in their chosen fields.

Listen to the full series here.

Did you know?

The Taking care podcast series offers professional and consumer perspectives on current issues and answers some frequently asked questions about public safety in healthcare.

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Ahpra releases a new episode fortnightly, discussing current topics and the latest issues affecting safe healthcare in Australia. You can also listen and subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and by searching ‘Taking Care’ in your podcast player.

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Page reviewed 21/07/2021