OWL Essay 2021 – Belinda Ong

Give a girl a hammer

Essay stimulus: ‘Give a girl a hammer. Please discuss’

Give a girl a hammer and you give her an opportunity. One that ranges from simply learning a technical skill to embarking on a fulfilling career pathway. Despite women accounting for more than 50 per cent of medical school graduates, only five per cent of orthopaedic surgeons in Australia are female[1]. Give a girl a hammer and, statistically speaking, that opportunity is likely to be declined. This choice is influenced by a plethora of factors and it is only by scrutinising them that we can find ways to address them.

Give a girl a hammer, and she’ll be told, “that’s for boys”. Orthopaedic surgery’s reputation as a boy’s club severely impinges its appeal to women. The natural habitat of the orthopaedic theatre, one where conversations about golf and fishing are ubiquitous and size XXL gowns remain the status quo, can prove unsuitable and even hostile to the development of future female surgeons. Similarly, the notion that orthopaedics is all brawn and brute strength is another misconception, and one that diminishes the delicacies of the vocation so integral to its success. When confronted, women are faced with a choice: to come as they are and remain outside the traditional structures of surgery, or shed a part of themselves so intrinsic to their identity in order to be embraced as “one of the boys”[2].This is no easy choice to make.

Give a girl a hammer, and she will turn to the person next to her to show her how to use it. The guidance of a mentor – someone that can be trusted and that mentees can relate to – has the potential to motivate and inspire. Given the lack of female surgeons, however, it is easy to understand why some may find it difficult to picture themselves as such: you can’t be what you can’t see. Diversity in the workplace, whether that be gender, ethnicity or social background, should reflect the general population. It is this diversity of experiences that results in a diversity of ideas, and consequently better health outcomes[3]. Thus, diversity is not only invaluable to the advancement of orthopaedic surgery, it is necessary for its survival.

Give a girl a hammer, and she will be surprised by its weight. Modest in its design, the sturdiness of a solid stainless-steel hammer can be intimidating. In a similar way, orthopaedics as a career can also seem daunting – the substantial work and hours required may contribute heavily to one’s decision, no matter how shiny the goal is. In the hands of a confident operator, however, a hammer can be wielded in such a way that the simple transfer of energy and momentum has the ability to fix broken bones. By the same token, the decision for a woman to pursue orthopaedics, when supported by a system that encourages her, has the ability to save lives.

The question then arises as to how to address these barriers, and to that end, it requires both women and men to make conscious, mindful choices when it comes to being inclusive. The choice to discuss last weekend’s netball game over golf. The choice to stock extra S/M gowns in theatre. The choice to seek and encourage diversity in trainee applicants. The choice to have systems in place that support women who want to have children during training. To give a girl a hammer is to celebrate women and embrace all the challenges that come with it for the good of patients and their health.

Change requires bravery but it does not have to be bold – in fact it is the small instances, the subtle moments gone unnoticed in the humdrum of everyday life, that have the potential to have the biggest impact. A kind word on ward round, a reassuring nod at clinic, or a quiet offer to use a hammer in theatre. Give a girl a hammer and you give her a seat at the proverbial table. Give a girl a hammer, and one day she’ll build the future of orthopaedics… one nail at a time.


1. Diversity in healthcare – why are we still talking about it? Australia: Australian Orthopaedic Association [Available from: https://www.aoa.org.au/for-patients/articles-and-galleries/articles/article-diversity-in-healthcare.]

2. Liang R, Dornan T, Nestel D. Why do women leave surgical training? A qualitative and feminist study. Lancet. 2019 Feb 9;393(10171):541-549. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(18)32612-6. PMID: 30739689.

3. Gomez LE, Bernet P. Diversity improves performance and outcomes. J Natl Med Assoc. 2019;111(4):383-92.