Making waves

Four years ago, I wrote this. And the need to talk about gender roles in the workplace still exists.

For the last three years, I've been nose-to-the ground chasing my surgical career. If not at work, I'm studying, if not studying, I'm sleeping, and if not sleeping, I'm at the gym. If not in one of those four locations, it's probably time to call out the search party. At first, the plan was to do orthopaedics, a well-known boys' club, particularly given the sheer logistics of hoisting hefty legs in the air to replace well-worn hips with impressive titanium implants that glide with about as much friction as a puck on ice. Then, the plan was trauma surgery, the land of adrenaline, no sleep and a terrible work-life balance.

But.

In the last few weeks, I've encountered story after story of colleagues leaving the surgical world for greener pastures. So many who are giving up on their passion for healing flesh with scalpels and sutures to the dark rooms of radiology or the empathic spaces of general practice. It breaks my heart to see, mostly woman, give up on their dreams because it doesn't give them enough time with their partners, or to start a family, or to clean the house. These smart, highly-educated, exceptionally dedicated individuals have stood at a precipice and found the leap they would have to take for their career far too dangerous for everything else that matters to them.

The story goes, according to my father, that when I was a two-and-a-half kilogram lump in my mother's abdomen, he had a stern talking to me about not arriving on my brother's first day of school. True to form, my mother's waters broke a handful of hours before school was to start, my brother was whisked to a friend's house, I was born and my brother was late for school. If you ask my dad, I've been beating to my own drum ever since. Probably much to the exhaustion of my parents, I had a tendency to push boundaries for my whole childhood, mostly with requests to spend a year in France on exchange (never granted, much to my dismay), with self-driven enthusiasm for debating and other nerdily academic pursuits. I'm pretty sure I complained at some point that I had not been sent to Kumon or Mandarin school like all of my friends (who, to their credit, hated both). I had to be pulled out of the pages of novels and homework alike to participate in family television sessions, though conversations about politics and engineering could keep us all at the table for hours. The only times in my adult life that I remember my parents uttering those heavy three words, "I love you," are when I've jetted off to developing nations for additional career experiences in under-resourced health facilities with limited cell or internet access but plenty of exposure to undesirable contagious diseases. On one of these adventures I was warned strictly to never venture anywhere without the company of a trusted male, which sounded absurd to my Western ideals but turned out to be excellent advice in practice.

I grew up in a home that made little note of the gender divide. I distinctly remember being given my brother's hand-me-down shirts for both school and home, and cringed for the whole four years I wore his extra-large sports jacket, an appropriate size for any six-foot tall male, and an absurdly large garment for a five-foot tall twelve year old. While I'm sure I went through the typical five-year-old girly love for all things pink, purple and glittery, I distinctly remember refusing to wear a white floral dress my mother had bought for me around that age. She had thought it delightful and spent a good deal of time trying to convince me to wear it, and I remember spending as many minutes standing in front of my mirror hating everything about it. That dress was folded up for the donation bag many years later, though I'm not sure it was ever worn. Even now, the memory of that dress apparently haunts me. I was one of the few kids in my school who could boast (and boast I did) that my dad picked me up from school relatively regularly. It was a strangely uncommon thing for other kids, and something I couldn't understand. My parents split most of the household chores down the middle - they both cooked, grocery shopping was mostly Dad's job while cleaning the bathroom frequently fell to Mum. As we kids grew older, we took up some of the chores too. My brother was always a much better and more reliable chef than me, though I somehow became responsible for the vacuuming. Homework help was more commonly sought from Dad, mostly because Mum was often working in the evening.

And so, perhaps, I had never really considered there being any gender-based considerations behind career decisions. If you want to do something, you endeavoured to do that thing. And if you don't want to do something, don't do that thing. I don't remember there being any question about whether my brother and I would or would not have careers. The expectation was always that we would seek and obtain tertiary qualifications, though what they were was always our choice.

It came as quite a shock, then, to arrive in the workforce and be harassed constantly by questions of how I would manage my theoretical relationship with my theoretical life-partner and our theoretical offspring at some unforeseen date in the future. Aside from the fact that there's never been an actual relationship worth pursuing seriously, these theoretical considerations seem wildly unnecessary until such a time as career interferes with their existence. And, more importantly, given that plenty of people, both male and female, seem to make these arrangements work without considering them needlessly years in advance, it seems rather a waste of mental effort to plan for a future that may not exist before it's even on the horizon.

And yet. This is exactly the problem that many women face in the workforce. So many are asked how they will commit to their chosen career if and when they decide to have children. Will they take a considerable period of maternity leave? Would they leave the business indefinitely? Would they choose to be a stay-at-home parent and live in a single-income household? This is not a conversation that my male colleagues encounter frequently despite the obvious fact that many of them may have life-partners and children to consider in the future. This is also despite many of them hoping for a solid balance of work and child-rearing when the time comes.

For my female colleagues already juggling this difficult balance, the message has been simple. Yes, it's hard. And yes, it requires sacrifices from both them and their partner. But they make it happen. Should they, as a well-educated human being in the workforce, desire to return to the workforce, there are plenty of possible avenues. There are parents, in-laws, friends, nannies and day-care centres that can all cater to the needs of parents wishing to stay in the workforce. Creative parents may share a nanny service with other colleagues in a similar situation. I've heard of couples working four-day weeks each, one Monday through Thursday, one Thursday through Sunday, which means sacrificing a good deal of their couple-time to significantly reduce their cost-burden for childcare in those early years before school starts. Importantly, once a couple falls pregnant, they usually have a few months of forewarning (bar those couples who unwittingly miss a pregnancy until they arrive at Emergency with unusual abdominal pain) to organise the basics and arrange care needs.

But still. I hear from my female senior surgical trainees that they may not have chosen this path had they not been in a serious and stable, supportive relationship prior to commencing their training. Or, if they'd known it would have been so demanding, they might not have signed up in the first place. These comments are not exclusive to women. I've had plenty of senior male trainees tell me how hard this career is on their marriage and their kids. How they have barely seen their kids awake in weeks, and have to suffice with stealthily sneaking in their bedrooms late at night to catch a glimpse of the 50% of their genetics fast asleep in a cot. I hear of the wives who married them when they were physios or medical students and didn't know the hardship that would come with being the stabilising life force, who would never know when their partner might be home, and who could rarely rely on a 7pm dinner date actually occurring. If their partner is also medically, they may rarely see each other. And if their partner is non-medical, it can be exceptionally difficult to understand, and thus accept, the demands of the hospital work environment.

Our seniors will tell us that they had it much harder, just as every generation of doctors will claim that the next should tough it out just as they did. But just because life was tough before doesn't mean life should continue to be tough. Though our working conditions are better protected now, our working knowledge must be larger, the number of procedures to learn is more extensive and the baseline health of our patients tends to be worse. Present-day on-call schedules may be shorter but that does not necessarily make them easier for training surgeons with families, particularly because the other half may also have work responsibilities late into the evening.

When I was in my first year of primary school, a tiny five-year old scared of what the future would hold, I remember asking my mum to pick me up at the "usual time" on our first full day of school. We had previously been finishing before the other students, which meant we weren't bowled over by the bigger students running out the gates at three-thirty. This was, of course, an unfortunate arrangement for the (mostly) mothers who had to pick up their older children only an hour or two later. Dutifully, my mum came to school at that earlier time to collect me, and I had been having so much time with my friends that I hadn't realised it was time to go. I can't remember if I actually did leave then, or if I was allowed to stay after all. Either way, I was disappointed at the possibility of leaving when there was so much fun and learning to be had in the classroom. Not long after, I was enrolled in swimming lessons, where I faltered time and time again due to a fear of putting my head under water. One day, to my surprise, I blew bubbles and didn't instantaneously die by doing what millions of people had done before me. Slow as I may have been, I was discovering that though things may look scary before we start, they are invariably nowhere near as bad as they seem.

At some point in my life, I learnt to dive in. Recently, a boss of mine asked me to read the first chapter of a book he was writing. "What did you think?" he asked me, when I looked up from reading. I looked him square in the eye and asked him if he wanted my honest opinion. He assured me he did, so I spent the next ten minutes critiquing his work. It was good, but it could use a lot of work. He teased me for weeks later, telling anyone who would listen that I thought his book was terrible. That wasn't what I thought, but there was also no point in telling him it was fabulous if I had his best interests at heart. I learnt to take chances, and just as I discovered as a kid in the pool, it's yet to cause me to drown.

It was in reading Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In last year that I realised I do too many things that hinder my own progression. I apologise too much for things that don't require apologies. I forgo opportunities when they arise for fear of looking the fool, when in reality I am the only one who suffers. Nobody hands out tiaras for attendance. Participation, and even asking questions that may seem basic or silly can foster discussions that benefit yourself and potentially others in the room. If you're thinking about a question, it's likely someone else is too. And if you're not asking that question, you're definitely counting yourself out of an opportunity.

While I applaud my colleagues for making decisions that make them happier, I am wary of the circumstances that made those decisions necessary. These are by no means women who lack dedication. They are exceptional, skilled, hard-working and committed. But they feel like that's not enough. Like the career they love and have pursued for so long will ultimately lead them to be disconnected from so many other aspects of a fulfilling life. Like choosing surgery means giving up love and family. And I think that has to change. I think it's possible. I also think it will be hard. But I don't want yet another generation of women to be sold-out of rewarding careers. Change won't happen unless we are a part of it. I just hope I can keep swimming.

waves crashing

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