Through the looking glass: a glimpse into a career in orthopaedic surgery.


Catherine McDougall

 On Saturday 18 August 2018, OWL hosted 48 female medical students, junior doctors and unaccredited registrars at The Prince Charles Hospital, Brisbane, for OWL's first 'Through the Looking Glass: A Glimpse into a Career in Orthopaedic Surgery' event.

The premise of the event was born from the statistics. Currently, four per cent of orthopaedic surgeons in Australia are female, and while training number now reach more than 10 per cent, the average number of females who applied for the training program between 2011 and 2017 was 15 per cent. Why do females only make up 15 per cent of orthopaedic training position applications when they make up approximately 50 per cent of junior doctors and medical students? Additionally, females have a higher rate of dropout when on the program than their male colleagues. 

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Catherine McDougall

QLD Branch Director
and OWL QLD Representative

While a component of the AOA's Diversity Strategy aims to increase female representation across the profession, a conundrum exits for many of us as we recognise the benefits of increased diversity, but want a fair and equitable system that supports the best and brightest young surgeons, independent of gender. For the system to be truly fair and equitable, we need introspection to better understand the barriers that exist currently; courage to determine which of these barriers are real, which are perceived and which challenges are inherent; and a clear, united voice to bust the myths, to increase exposure and to encourage. Thus 'Through the Looking Glass' was created.

We were overwhelmed with registrations, which came from three Australian states and exceeded more than 90 people. The format of the event, and the location precluded us from offering all these people positions, but feedback from the participants that had registered noted that 100 per cent of them would recommend the event to a friend, thus creating the possibility that similar events could be run in the future. Our attendance group comprised 50 per cent medical students and 50 per cent junior doctors and unaccredited registrars. 

Prior to the event, the participants completed a pre-event survey. Information was gathered on their previous exposure to orthopaedics and barriers to choosing orthopaedics as a career, as well as basic demographic information. 

The survey results were interesting and helped shaped the program for the day. Strikingly, 75 per cent of the group believed that discrimination existed for woman wanting to pursue a career in orthopaedics. The top three barriers that the group believed inhibited females pursuing orthopaedics as a career were: that orthopaedics was a "boys club"; that they are advised against it by other medical colleagues and educators early in their career because it's a career path that is difficult for women; and that there is difficulty in balancing parenthood and work as a surgeon. The final part of the survey allowed the participants to document any other specific questions they wanted addressed during the afternoon.

The objectives of the afternoon were to be informative (to address their concerns and bust the myths), to be realistic about competitiveness of the process, to be honest about some of the challenges, and most importantly, to be encouraging about a career in orthopaedic surgery. The program commenced with an 'Introduction to Orthopaedics', including a short presentation by dr Paul Pincus on what he enjoys about being an orthopaedic surgeon and why he and his male colleagues are supportive of women in orthopaedics. The attendees then participated in small  group practical skills stations, including sawbone plates and screws, external fixators, arthroscopy skills and plastering. The aim of the practical stations was to increase exposure, to let the participants use the tools and to have the opportunity to interact with surgeons in a small group environment. The key to the success of the practical stations was the generosity of the local surgeons in providing their time and therefore enabling all the participants to engage in the activities and ask questions. 

Following afternoon tea, the final session, and one of the highlights of the event, included a presentation by QLD's first female orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Prue Fitzpatrick on the 'Realities of Life as a Female Orthopaedic Surgeon', and a Q and A panel with 11 female orthopaedic surgeons and registrars. The panel was open and honest about some of the challenges, which was greatly appreciated by the participants. Both the junior participants and the female surgeons enjoyed sharing experiences and the collegiate atmosphere that ensued.  

The afternoon was enjoyed by all and would not have been possible without the generous assistance of the 18 female and male surgical colleagues, AOA staff: David Parker, Susie Obeid and Anna Shotam, industry sponsors: Stryker and Depuy, the AOA QLD Branch, The Prince Charles Hospital, and most importantly, the bright, enthusiastic group of young woman who participated int he event with openness and fervour. I hope we are able to roll out similar events in other states in the future. 

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Participants engaging in the 'Through the looking glass' event.

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Consultants at the 'Through the looking glass' event. From L to R: Libby Anderson, Nicola Ward, Kate Campbell, Catherine McDougall, Michael Lutz, Mich Atkinson, David Bade, Prue Fitzpatrick, Andrew Stillwell, Sarah Coll, Amanda Reilly, Rohan Brunello, Richard Hanly and Bill Donnelly. Absent: Sheanna Maine, Paul Pincus and Sarah Farrell.