MWIA Centennial Congress

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I attended the 2019 MWIA (Medical Women’s International Association) triennial Congress, and centennial celebration in New York with assistance from an AFMW travel grant.

After having been to the 2016 Congress in Vienna as young medical women representative for AFMW, I was keen to attend another. I wanted to be able to again hear about the great work happening around the world for medical women, but also by medical women, in assisting those who need it.

Now, almost a month after the conference has finished, I still haven’t been able to finish going through all the notes I made. I intend to summarise these and be able to report back through further newsletter articles on different topics, such as gender issues in health, women in leadership, barriers to women in medicine, and achievements of women in medicine, as well as sexual harassment in medicine. For now I will summarise my key take aways from the Congress.

Number 1 Share your problem – ask for help.
I think this spans a broad spectrum of our lives. From little issues, like when my mobile was running out of charge at Congress between taking photos of slides and it trying to connect to the Wi-Fi all the time. I hadn’t packed my charger and wondered what I was going to do about the rest of the day (I didn’t have time to go back to where we were staying). With a simple comment about this issue it was solved by one of the many other Australian women without a fuss because they had a portable mobile charger. I now think portable mobile chargers are FANTASTIC and say thank you to all of the Australian medical women who let me borrow theirs over the course of the conference.

To the big issues, like a story we heard from one of the presenters. She came across an anaesthetic trainee one morning crying in the changerooms, when she asked what the problem was she heard about this woman’s difficult situation of (if I’m remembering the story correctly) asking before she went on some leave to not be rostered for certain procedures/rooms. She wasn’t able to check the roster until the night before her return to work where she found she’d been rostered to the interventional suite – she rang the boss who was in charge of rostering and asked to be changed, and was told that it would happen. In the morning she found she had been reassigned to CT. She was trying to avoid radiation as she was in the early stages of pregnancy, however also wasn’t wanting to inform others at work of her pregnancy yet. This senior woman, the only female head of department in anaesthetics, spoke to the senior male who did the roster. He hadn’t thought about why a woman of child-bearing age may want to not be rostered to work in an area with radiation exposure. That day got sorted out for that woman. This trouble that the senior woman had caused was raised at the next heads of department meeting. The question was asked whether there needed to be a policy about this – to which the woman replied yes, there did need to be a policy, and should also include access for women in surgery (whatever their role) to an area to express and store breastmilk as well.

From our little problems to our bigger ones, if we don’t share what it is then nothing can change. Also, if we’re having a problem, we don’t know who else may be facing the same difficulty – and change needs to start somewhere

2. The problem isn’t you – it’s the system
This learning point follows on quite well from the last one. When we do reach difficult times or issues, generally the problem isn’t us, but the system in which we are working/living. From the example above, the ‘system’ was built around males who generally don’t need to be particularly concerned about exposure to radiation (apart from standard precautions), or worry about lactating to keep an infant alive. As Mary Beard was quoted during one presentation as saying in her book “Women & Power: A Manifesto”, “You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure”. Dr Gigi Osler (8th female president of the Canadian Medical Association, 1st female surgeon president, 1st woman of colour president) went on to say that diversity and intersectionality are also important, and that the sex aspect of this statement could be replaced by: sexuality; age; geographic location; ability; Aboriginality; income; family status; gender; immigration status; heritage/history; language; religion; ethnicity; race; education; occupation. The system isn’t built to be inclusive. A lot of the mentoring education that occurs during medical training is trying to mold the junior doctor into the replica of the senior doctor. This makes diversity difficult as different junior doctors, as well as medical students, can’t see themselves becoming the specialist they don’t see themselves in, despite it being the area of specialisation they are most interested in. From a medical student or junior doctor being told to do General Practice as it’s more family friendly than critical care, to the critical care trainee being told they take too long doing consultations and maybe they should think about doing General Practice. The system needs to adapt for the diversity of people coming through – there is evidence about the improvements in productivity with diversity, there is evidence about better outcomes for female patients when they are cared for by female doctors, and for all patients when surgery is performed by women. What else are we missing out on in healthcare by simply being replicas of those who came before us? It’s time to change the system so that everyone can participate.

3.  We need to be involved in politics
Ms Gloria Steinem, one of the world’s most influential feminists, spoke to us on the first day of Congress. She was asked whether we need to get involved in politics, her answer was that we are subject to a system of power, if we don’t get involved then we are giving up our power. How we get involved in politics will look different for different people, but I believe that whatever issue we have, we need to pursue it politically – whether it be with the head of department, head of training, hospital, college, AMA, or federal government. Quoting David Hurley, the current Governor-General of Australia, “The standard you walk by is the standard you accept”.

By Dr Melanie Dorrington

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