Monday, August 22, 2011

Female heart/lung surgeon thrives in Australia

Medicare Supplement Plans

Still a man's world?

All in a day's work … Emily Granger is one of only a handful of female heart/lung surgeons in Australia. Photo: Andrew Goldie
I find transplantation fascinating: taking a donor heart and sticking it in someone who's at death's door, then watching that heart spring to life. All of a sudden, this patient who's been wobbling around has almost got headaches because their blood pressure is so good. It's absolutely amazing

By Alyssa McDonald The Sydney Morning Herald
From mine sites to operating theatres, gender barriers are still being broken at work.
From Sunday Life
Women may make up half the Australian workforce, but there are still plenty of careers where only a tiny proportion of workers are female. The lack of women in the boardroom and in parliament is much discussed – but what about in operating theatres or on building sites?

There is an economic incentive to enter these occupations. Male-dominated industries tend to be better paid than their female-led equivalents. It's a disparity highlighted in May by the Fair Work Australia tribunal, which ruled that ''gender has an important influence'' in the underpayment of predominantly female community workers in ''caring'' roles.

But it's not all about money. These four women from various parts of Australia have followed different career paths and live very different lives. But each of them has chosen an occupation in which few women are found. Here, they tell their stories:

Emily Granger, 36
A cardiothoracic and heart/lung transplant surgeon at St Vincent's Hospital, Granger lives in Sydney with her husband and two daughters.

We have approximately 100 cardiac surgeons in Australia, and about eight are female. But that's changing; there are more females training now. People are more understanding when it comes to maternity leave – or paternity leave.

I operate two days a week. On the third day, I see my outpatients and new patients. For the other two days, I try to spend time with the girls because they're still very young. A lot of the time you get emergencies or extra operations. But, generally, at least one day a week I can do the kindy drop-off and pick up, and I try most nights to get home in time to put the girls to bed.

To become any sort of surgeon takes a good 10 years after graduation. I find transplantation fascinating: taking a donor heart and sticking it in someone who's at death's door, then watching that heart spring to life. All of a sudden, this patient who's been wobbling around has almost got headaches because their blood pressure is so good. It's absolutely amazing.

Because I was still pretty young when I was training, I thought, "I'll have my children after I've got the piece of paper, then no one can take that away from me." These days, with the change to postgraduate medical degrees, most people are two or three years older, and that is going to put a lot of pressure on women.

Ever since I came to Sydney, I've had the same nanny; she's like a third grandmother. And my husband is very hands-on; he does fly-in/fly-out with mining, so when he's home, he's home. He seems to take the girls to a lot of car yards at weekends, so they have this appreciation of expensive cars.

Personally, I've never had any issue being a female heart surgeon. In the operating theatre, people will test the boundaries a little bit because the only other females are nurses. So you have to make sure your decisions are respected; my manner is very businesslike. As a surgeon, you're a leader in the operating theatre, and I think your behaviour reflects on other people.

A lot of the people we operate on come from out in the bush. They're generally pretty easy-going. Some patients get a little confused and say, "Well, I never saw my surgeon, but this lovely nurse came to see me every day." But it doesn't upset me at all. The point is that they get well.

Kirsty Liddicoat, 29
A planning engineer, Liddicoat works at two iron ore mines in Western Australia.

There are always going to be some men who are horrid; it doesn't matter what industry you're in. Just because you're on the mines doesn't mean there's more of them. But you may have to live in the same area as them for nine or 10 days at a time, and some of the older ones, I find, just don't think females should be there. There are some you just have to ignore, and that can be tough. But then there are some who become like brothers and uncles – good friends.

As a planning engineer, I schedule what equipment is going where and at what time. I'm pretty lucky at the moment, I don't start until 6.30am. We do planning work, we look after reporting, and I also do design work – designing ramps, changing wall angles, all the incidentals.

On my site, there are quite a few women. There are more females than people perceive on mine sites. I've worked in two teams of professionals where more than 50 per cent of the team was female. But that's not including everyone on site. And it does vary.

When I was a geologist I spent time working on oil rigs, where only the chef and I were female. We lived on a boat, there were 30 people, and the chef and I had completely different hours. I worked with really good guys – we got along as friends, they didn't harass me, they didn't expect anything of me. But I have heard stories that were the other way around.

Since the start of this year, I've been the deputy chair of the Women in Mining group. There's about an 18 per cent pay difference for women in the mining industry, there's a lack of access to flexible work practices, and then there's bullying. Men face it as well, but women are targeted slightly more.

My key aim is to set up a phone support line for females in the industry. As a woman, when you go to a new site, everyone knows who you are. It never gets any easier. You do need to establish yourself: "I can change a tyre; I'm not going to put up with you saying things." You can't be a prima donna.

Mining life is tough on relationships. You hear that from men as well. I'm single, and I think part of that is due to the fact I've lived in mining towns for four or five years. I decided about three years ago to work fly-in/fly-out, so I could live in a city and get away from some of the people I work with sometimes. I like the lifestyle. But if you're looking at having a family, then your options are residential or a city-based role. I intend to be at a point in the next five to 10 years where I can work in a city-based managerial position.

I'm working towards my quarry manager's certificate and for that you need time on a blast crew – sometimes you carry buckets that weigh 20 or 30 kilograms each. I'll carry half buckets where the guys will carry full buckets. Most females just don't have the same strength as guys. But as long as you're willing to do a job, they don't mind if you can't carry quite as much - you're doing as many loads. And any excessively heavy lifting is done mechanically these days, anyway.

Ellen Mills, 28
A painting apprentice with the Queensland government's Women in Hard Hats training program, Mills lives in Townsville with her four children.

On an average day we do a lot of internal painting, and some external, depending on the weather. A lot of plastering and sanding. We do a lot of Department of Housing places, but last week we were on a cherry picker, and it was my first time using a spray gun. The best part is the clients' faces once you've done their houses; some have had paint peeling for years.

I'm the only woman on the team, and it's the first time they've had a woman on board, too. It's good. If we have issues, we deal with them right away; just minor issues, like miscommunication between myself and tradies about what I'm supposed to do. But we've kind of bonded; we work well together now.

Before this, I was working part-time as a nurse's assistant. I'd never done any painting in my life. I didn't think I was going to get the apprenticeship. Being a woman from an Islander background, my family and friends just thought, "Nah, you can't do a man's job." At first I thought it was going to be hard because of cultural stuff, but once you give it a go, you learn how to work it. I grew into it, and I love it now.

There's not really any part of the job that's more difficult for me because I'm female. The only challenge I have is being a single mum of four. I've gone through a marriage break-up in the past eight months. Work is very good, but I still have to go home to a full-time job, you know? But I've finally got a routine – daycare is very helpful.

I want to carry on painting, but I also want to try other things. A program like [Women in Hard Hats] will help a lot of women, because it gives them a way to get in the door. We had a family funeral at the weekend, and we had a lot of family come. The majority of them are unemployed, but they're like, "How did you get into where you are now?" And I'm like, "I gave it I a go." People have to be aware that it won't come to you. I've got three daughters; I don't want them growing up thinking they can't do whatever they want to do.

Cheryl Praeger, 62
One of Australia's top pure mathematicians, Praeger is a professor at the University of Western Australia.

I was really lucky as an undergraduate in having two wonderful women as lecturers. That was at the University of Queensland in the mid-'60s, and there were very few women on the teaching staff at universities then. I also had a mentor in [influential mathematician] Bernhard Neumann. And I married a mathematical statistician, who has really supported me throughout my life - I mean, neither of us knew if I was going to get a job.

For the last couple of years I've been on the Federation Fellowship, the premier research fellowship in Australia. So my life has changed quite a bit – I used to have a spread of responsibilities across undergraduate teaching, postgraduate supervision, administrative leadership. These days I am more focused on research. I have a lot of postdoctoral researchers, I'm editor-in-chief of a lecture notes series ... I work all the time.

At my very first international conference in the US, I was the only invited lecturer who was a woman, and in other conferences I've been in a very small minority. It used to feel quite strange, so I'm pretty sensitive to getting to know some of the younger women and trying to be supportive of them. At the moment I've got two women in my research group and one of six PhD students is a woman. It's still a minority, but it is a mix. I am seeing more women now at conferences. I'd love to see more – it will be wonderful when it's 50-50, or even 30-70.

When I entered the mathematics profession, all the women wanted to pretend that they were just like everybody else. Except they weren't. It's only been in the last five to 10 years that we've had meetings of women participants at the national gathering of the Australian Mathematical Society. I don't know what that indicates. There's enough of us to do it? That we still need to do it because it's not completely normal to be a woman in that discipline?

It was really important to me to have a family – I've got two grown-up boys. But I felt to be taken seriously as a mathematician, I shouldn't be taking a lot of time off. I think it's easier these days. It would have been easier for me if I'd had a little more time. I don't know how people do this running around and changing locations. I've been incredibly lucky. I thought [my husband] John and I were coming to Western Australia for two years, and we ended up staying – I became a professor here at the age of 35.

As a woman in academia you have all kinds of roles: being a role model, being involved in helping shape the institution you work for. Somehow you feel like women have to be superwomen and I think a lot of women overachieve in senior roles. Which is good for the profession. Maybe not so good for the women!

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