Women’s Month event sheds light on barriers for women in science and medicine

Professor Keymanthri Moodley and Professor Elmi Muller

In celebration of Womens Month, the Transplantation Society, Stellenbosch Universitys (SU) Womens Forum and the Department of Surgery at the University of Cape Town (UCT) co-hosted a discussion around systematic issues that women in medicine and science face. The discussion, which took place on 27 August at Groote Schuur Hospital, was moderated by Professor Elmi Muller, Dr Lydia Cairncross and Professor Keymanthri Moodley and attended both virtually and in-person by guests from around the world.

Prior to the event, attendees were asked to watch Picture a Scientist” – a film that documents the groundswell of female researchers in the United States (US) who are paving the way to equality for women in science. In this film, biologist Nancy Hopkins, chemist Raychelle Burks and geologist Jane Willenbring take viewers on a journey of their own careers and the struggles they endured in male-dominated fields.

Against the backdrop of this impactful documentary, conversations were sparked on the systemic and invisible oppression against women in workplaces across South Africa. From subtle slights to deliberate discrimination, surgeons, doctors, researchers, academic and administrative staff shared their experiences during the Women’s Month event.

The gender pay gap in medicine and science

The most explicit example of where women still bear the brunt of their industries is the gender pay gap. “I think that salary is a big problem in South Africa,” says Dr Simphiwe Simelane from UCT. “In my previous job as a research medical officer, my starting salary was significantly less than what was offered to a male peer for the same job description.” Beyond the borders of South Africa, unequal salaries are a global issue according to Dr Camille Kotton from Massachusetts General Hospital in the US. “While starting salaries in medicine are quite equal, they start to change for a whole host of reasons as we become more senior. When we look at this systematically, it’s definitely an issue.”

The career sacrifices of parenthood

Parenthood is another topical example of where women are often treated unfairly. One female surgeon from Cape Town, who is currently completing her studies while caring for two children, says she noticed that a lot of talented women stepped back from progressing their careers once they started a family. She adds that she hopes there can be more options for surgeons to complete their studies part-time so that female surgeons are not excluded from programmes simply for becoming mothers. On family life, Professor Nancy Kwan Man from the University of Hong Kong says that balancing family duties is a challenge especially for women in senior leadership roles. She adds that women should support and encourage each other to fill senior positions and progress in their respective fields.     

The role of male allies in women empowerment

While the event was mostly attended by women, a few men also participated and opened up the floor for a discussion on how male allies can understand and support the needs of professional women. Professor Helmuth Reuter from SU’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences says he realises how important it is to hear women’s voices directly and reflect on how men can also do introspection into their own roles. “Where I can, I would certainly like to work with my female colleagues and I am open to criticism where other men and I are at fault. I hope we can reflect on how we can work together better.”

The prolonged impact of unconscious biases

From the overarching to the underlying, the discussion also shed light on the subliminal effects of years of low-key discrimination. Dr Allison Moore, an urologist at Groote Schuur Hospital, says that throughout medical school, internship and training it was always the small sexist comments, rather than large acts of harassment, that undermined her as a young surgeon. Cairncross, a consultant surgeon at Groote Schuur Hospital and associate professor at UCT, says she was reminded of unconscious biases while working in Covid-19 wards last year. “I was walking with a white, male colleague and patients just assumed he was the professor and I was not,” she recalls. “As women, we constantly need to be present and show up while power often just flows directly towards men.”

Which begs the question: How do institutions move away from a culture of compliance to a culture of change to address underlying biases?

In the Womens Forum, weve been working on a number of issues to empower women and to remove obstacles in terms of career progression over the years,” says Moodley, who chairs the Tygerberg branch of SUs Womens Forum. Currently, were working on a childcare facility at Tygerberg hospital and weve established a lactation room, but were also looking at other ways in which women are impacted negatively in the work environment.”

For more information on this event and to view the full discussion, visit The Transplantation Society

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