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  • A Woman Surgeon's Determination Despite the Barriers to Career Progression
  • Deborah Verran

I have numerous stories that I can recount from a surgical career that has spanned just over 30 years, spread across 4 countries. Along the way, there have been many moments of joy, along with a sense of significant professional accomplishment. However, I am left with some disquiet over occasional events. For the sake of brevity, I have encapsulated my thoughts into a paragraph for each stage of my life.

I was fortunate to be born into a family where my parents expected me to pursue a university qualification, so by my middle school years, marine biology was my goal. This fascination with marine life came about from having avidly watched all of the Jacques Cousteau television programmes, along with snorkelling at the beach every summer holiday. Back then, school careers counselling was limited and tended to focus on the traditional career pathways for women, i.e., either nursing or teaching.

During my first year of University, whilst undertaking a Bachelor degree, I realised that I was not enjoying the course and that my career prospects were limited. I spent time in the University café, debating career options with other students who were in a similar position. When Medical School was mentioned, suddenly this career path ticked all of the boxes. A careers counsellor confirmed that this was possible if I obtained certain grades in the end of year examinations. The next thing I knew, I was accepted into medical school. Dad's only concern at that stage was that perhaps I would like to be a vet instead because animals do not complain like humans. (In retrospect, he knew something!)

Medical School was really enjoyable and, as the class was close to 50 percent female, many of us assumed that career progression would be reasonably straightforward. No specific mention was ever made of the challenges faced by women professionals in the workplace. It was only once I had commenced hospital clinical attachments that I noticed the discrepancy between the numbers of male versus female specialists. If you said that you wanted to become a family practitioner or a paediatric specialist, then everyone was supportive. However, if you said you wanted to be a surgeon, well—that elicited mainly negative responses. I found this puzzling in light of the numbers of women graduating from medical school. What was going on here?

My early post-graduate years were spent undertaking general rotations in the hospital system because there was no direct entry into specialty training (not like in the United States). We all worked extremely long hours, and no allowances were made for gender. This led to illness on a couple of occasions including a dental abscess from an impacted wisdom tooth (diagnosed by a ward charge nurse, as my face was swollen). The career paths the women were expected to follow [End Page 194] were reinforced frequently along with the 'Do not complain about the long hours' adage (which came from a surgical superintendent, no less). I will never forget the conversations I had along the way with two senior male surgeons (both in positions of authority). One stated I was not cut out to do surgery (and ensured that this happened by blocking my career progression within one major hospital). The second tried to talk me out of it, despite the fact that his own daughter was a classmate of mine in medical school. His opinion was that women doctors should work part-time in less demanding specialties.

Faced with such major barriers, I turned to two trusted mid-career male surgeons who I had dealt with professionally, as there were no women surgeons. They helped me map out a pathway via which I could undertake an unaccredited training job in another city. This new job was a breath of fresh air as poor behaviour in the workplace—i.e., being yelled at, derogatory comments, et cetera—were far less common. Ironically, doctors in other special-ties—not the surgeons—were the perpetrators in this new workplace. Through determination and support of my then bosses, I was finally accepted into a general surgical training scheme. This...


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pp. 194-196
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