Surgeons speak about women in surgery

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Sixty per cent of Australian medical students are women, and yet women account for just 13 per cent of senior surgeons. RACS Fellows Dr Christine Lai and Dr Rhea Liang recently appeared on the ABC's Health Report program to discuss breaking down the barriers for women in surgery.

Dr Christine Lai is an Adelaide-based General and Breast Endocrine surgeon. She is also the Chair of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) Women in Surgery Section and a RACS Councillor. She spoke about the initiatives that RACS has put in place such as the Diversity Inclusion Plan to address issues of bullying and harassment in surgical practice and mentioned RACS' efforts to increase the representation of women in the surgical training program across all specialties.

"When you look at women and men in surgical committees in our College, there are now 27 per cent of women on those main committees, up from 23 per cent in 2017. Last year one out of three applicants were women, which has gradually been climbing over the last few years, and 35 per cent of successful trainees were women," said Dr Lai.

"It's very encouraging that despite the previous bad press about the culture in surgery, there are more women wanting to enter surgery, so presumably the programs that the College has put in place are affecting workplace culture where women are willing to pursue a career in surgery."

Dr Rhea Liang is a general surgeon and incoming chair of the Operating with Respect committee at RACS. Dr Liang recently released research that provided insights into why so many more surgeons are men than women, despite the increasing number of women in medicine.

The qualitative research titled Why do women leave surgical training? A qualitative and feminist study, was conducted by Dr Liang, in conjunction with Professor Tim Dornan, of Queens University Belfast, UK and Professor Debra Nestel of Melbourne University and published by leading medical journal The Lancet. It asked women to describe in-depth why they had chosen to leave surgical training soon after they had started it, despite having aspired to the profession since childhood.

We are talking about things that we wouldn't have dared talk about five or ten years ago, and I'm very heartened, … And so even though it looks like we've got this burgeoning problem, in actual fact what we are really doing is just uncovering a terrible iceberg that has always been there," Dr Liang said.

Listen to the full interview