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Being a woman in New Zealand’s senior medical workforce

7 November 2019

‘Where’s the real doctor?’: Being a woman in New Zealand’s senior medical workforce

Julie Anne Genter

A study examining gender bias and other challenges faced by women in New Zealand’s senior medical workforce was launched today at Parliament by Minister for Women and Associate Minister of Health Julie Anne Genter.

It’s hoped the research will spark much-needed debate on the culture and future of medicine.

“Making up for being female’: Work-life balance, medical time and gender norms for women in the New Zealand senior medical workforce” was conducted by Association of Salaried Medical Specialists Director of Policy and Research Dr Charlotte Chambers. It is based on long-form interviews with 14 New Zealand doctors aged between 30-40.

The study drills down into why female medical specialists work through illness at higher rates than their male counterparts, self-report as bullied at a higher rate and have significantly higher rates of burnout.

“All of the women spoke about the stress of balancing the expectations and workloads of medicine against domestic responsibilities, whether or not they had children”.

“Some women talked about feeling that they had to erase their other lives as parent or caregiver when at work in order to be taken seriously as a hospital specialist.

“Some who were working part-time in my research described themselves as feeling like a bit of a slacker or second-class because their domestic commitments meant that they couldn’t work full time,” Dr Chambers says.

Women make up a growing proportion of the medical workforce. The New Zealand Medical Council estimates that women will outnumber male doctors by 2025.

Dr Chambers says that is often viewed negatively as the “feminisation” of medicine rather than celebrated as a move towards a gender balanced medical workforce.

Many of the women said their gender had affected how they are treated by patients and colleagues.

“One thing that really struck me is the significance of simple things like being mistaken for a nurse or being asked who’s looking after baby at home, or even being referred to as a ‘woman doctor’; these things are actually examples of pervasive gender bias,” says Dr Chambers.

Some quotes from the women:

“I’ll have junior doctors who have maybe just graduated medical school and the patient will talk to them like they’re the experts”

“Just because the era has changed and we are able to work – it’s not like [men have] stepped into the domestic area. They still continue to be fixed that way and we have to keep asking and it’s as good as doing it ourselves. So it’s like having two full-time jobs and doing everything at home – even though you’re delegating it. You still have to delegate, and that’s the most tiring thing because you have to keep chasing up on it.”

“I think it’s really hard to be assertive but not aggressive. Whereas for a guy, you can say, ‘Right, I’d like all my instruments set out like this and I’d like this,’ and [the nurses] will do it. Whereas if you’re a woman, they’re like, ‘Oh, she’s so uppity, she kind of …’ I think it’s really hard to get that balance right, definitely, as a female. That’s probably one of the hardest things.”

“To get rid of inherent inequities for women in medicine we need to get away from this old idea of the doctor as a man with a wife at home. It’s time to adapt to a realistic model of a doctor who is increasingly a woman, or a parent with a working partner and shared domestic responsibilities,” says Dr Chambers.

The study highlights the need for changes in attitude along with a rethink of how medical training and work schedules should include greater flexibility.

Ms Genter attended and spoke at today’s sector briefing about the research.


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