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'Gender disparities still exists between genders in the medical profession'

Contributor:
Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

After 30 years in the medical profession, Ruth Large is still being asked if she's the doctor.

The question doesn't bother her much, she finds it mildly amusing, but then the senior doctor at Waikato DHB has not seen the need to follow a conventional career path.

Large is an emergency physician working at both Thames and Waikato hospital, she also works as clinical director of information services at Waikato DHB.

She's got a clinical role in a small rural hospital which she loves, a role in a big emergency department, and the rest of her time is spent looking at digital health care delivery.

Elsewhere, she spends time with her three children and husband, and completes ironman competitions in her own time.

But when Large entered the workforce around 30 years ago, a number of her supervisors firmly believed she wouldn't make it as a doctor.

Having been advised by her own doctor that she should have children early due to a medical condition, Large became pregnant in the final year of her training.

She had to take a year off before becoming fully registered, which was just "not the done thing".

After she went back to work, her husband Paul looked after their first child, which was also fairly unusual and not easy for him, either.

"The plunket nurse didn't want to visit him, she only wanted to come and visit him when I was home, but I was never home, because I was working."

A report from one of her supervisors advised Large would make a really excellent physician "provided her family situation allows".

"I think things have changed from that perspective," Large said.

Although it was only the 1980s, there were fewer female doctors, and specialising as a woman was tough, she said.

"I did a short amount of time at the Ear, Nose and Throat unit in Auckland, one of the surgeons said to me: Women don't make ENT surgeons because they don't think fast enough.

"I remember processing that at the time, thinking a) yeah, right but b) I actually don't want this badly enough.

"Other colleagues have gone through, and I've watched them struggle through that training programme but at that time, and possibly still now, you really had to want it badly."

Decades on, recent reports have shown disparities still exist between genders in the medical profession.

Results released in November 2019 by the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS) showed that female medical specialists are paid on average 12.5 per cent less per hour than their male co-workers.

The study also found the pay gap widened as specialists got older, or if they had children.

Figures from Statistics New Zealand, looking at pay gaps across the healthcare industry, showed men were paid on average $10 more per hour than women.

This despite the number of female doctors in New Zealand outweighing male doctors by 55.9 - 44.1 per cent, as shown by the New Zealand Medical Council's workforce survey in 2018.

And another ASMS study from 2016 showed women in medicine, particularly between the ages of 30-39, had much higher burnout rates (at 70.5 per cent) compared to their male counterparts.

Large thinks this might be because women still feel the need to carry the load at home as well as at work. She recalls trying to breastfeed and work full time as both physically and mentally challenging.

Over the years, she thinks sexism in her workplaces has reduced.

She's not sure whether that's due to her higher experience level, or whether the culture has changed because there are many more women in medicine.

But Large will still get to the end of a consultation with a patient, with her title written on her scrubs, and they'll say: "when do I get to see the doctor?"

Or she will answer the physician's phone when she's on call with her full title, and will still get asked if she's the doctor.

And it's not just older members of the public who make the mistake, younger patients do so too.

"But I don't mind those things too much, I'm happy to grab a bedpan or something like that.

"Sometimes I even take it as a compliment, because I think, that interaction I've had is enough of an interaction that the patient feels comfortable. So it's not necessarily bad thing.

It's been more difficult in senior leadership levels, when in a meeting full of men, she will argue a point: only to be asked - "are you feeling alright?"

But Large stresses her current working environments are filled with supportive colleagues of all genders.

Getting to where she is in her profession has been possible in part through a network of very encouraging men, she said.

"Being a woman has huge advantages in medicine, as well as challenges.

"We are different, but everybody has a different experience of how their gender affects them: male, female, transgender or LGBTQIA

"What interests me now is the more clarity we've got over the inbalance between that experience."

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