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Change Starts At The Top, In Our Minds And Our Institutions

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As the old riddle goes:

A father and a son are in a horrible car crash. The son is rushed to hospital and the trauma surgeon is called.

As the surgeon walks into the room, the surgeon says "I can't operate! That boy is my son!"

How can this be?

Over the past year, the Australian community has become uncomfortably aware of the pervasive culture of discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment within the medical profession. To those of us within the profession, it is clear that this deeply embedded culture of sexual harassment is a symptom of a much deeper problem. This profession, particularly the surgical specialty, is pervaded by an inherent androcentrism that means women are seen as outsiders.

As a female medical student, I have been told that teaching women to be surgeons is "a waste of resources." In my opinion, this is not because women are inferior to men, it is because the structure of the profession favours men.

Consider, when was the last time a male surgeon was considered to "have it all" because he had a full-time surgical career, a marriage and children? In fact, when one refers to a surgeon, how often is it simply assumed that the surgeon is male?

If you haven't already realized, the aforementioned trauma surgeon -- in the riddle above -- is the patient's mother; she is female.


In the past, medicine was an all-male industry, so the processes and behaviours grew around the needs of men. The difficulty now arises in catalyzing a shift towards an equitable distribution of opportunity and access. There are a myriad of industries that are also historically all male, but have since progressed, so the question remains: Why is medicine still stuck in the past?

As a society, we must shift our lens. We must reflect, are we attempting to change the culture of a profession in the hopes that the structural framework will follow suit? Have we got it backwards?

If we consider the medical profession as a metaphor for society itself, then the select few in the surgical field are a parallel for those in Federal Parliament. While we are optimistic that a new generation of doctors will bring with it change, it would be naïve to think this will happen without support from the top. In an era when the emphasis is on empowering girls and women, it is disappointing that only 31.9 per cent of the top tier of our nation is comprised of women.

Females in high-profile leadership positions influence cultural norms, and are the first step towards delivering policy that treats men and women equally in terms of education and labor force participation. A gender-diverse Parliament will promote policy that is non-discriminatory, ensuring that decision-making is not weighted towards the needs of either gender.

Though nations with gender diverse parliaments are not all perfect, what they have in common is that they have each seen rapid progress and social advancement. For instance, Rwanda, which has a 64 per cent female parliament, now has 86 per cent female labor force participation compared to Australia's 65 per cent. The Nordic nations have shown the effects of promoting female leadership; Swedish Parliament is 44 per cent female and has the highest female employment rate in the E.U. Similarly, Finland, a nation often considered the gold standard in terms of female representation in government, has generous paid maternity leave and heavily subsidized child care.

The road to equal representation in Parliament will be a difficult one, and will most likely only occur when the group that benefits from an imbalance in power is willing to give up some of their advantages, for the sake of true equality.

By Maria Bilal, G(irls)20 Delegate, Australia

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