Charlotte Paul and Sarah Romans
You young women are taking the place of a man.”
In 1971, seventeen women were among the 120 graduates in medicine at the University of Otago. 44 years later, fifteen of the sixteen who were still alive wrote brief life stories, and in November 2015 fourteen of us met for a three day reunion. The naysayers were wrong: we had all practised medicine for many years, with just one giving up after thirty years to pursue other interests, and none of us regretted having chosen a medical career. Three had retired in the last few years but the rest were still practising, aged 67 or older. What follows are insights gleaned from this group of women, as we reflected on the time before we started university, our time together at Medical School, and our lives as medical practitioners. We also reflected on the process of meeting again, nearly fifty years after entering Medical School, and we now offer some insights to our successors, the women studying medicine today.
Surprisingly, not one of us was the daughter of a doctor. Our parents’ lives were shaped by the depression of the early 1930s and by World War II. Many parents left school early and wanted their daughters to get the education that they had been denied. The lives of some fathers had been damaged by war experiences. There were fathers who were intent on supporting their daughters in medicine and mothers (and fathers) who wanted their daughters to be secretaries; for others encouragement came from their mothers. Our decisions to study medicine were often influenced by parents who would have liked to have done so themselves, or by family gratitude because a doctor had brought healing to a family member.
The quality of secondary schooling had a major effect on the possibility of studying medicine. The single-sex girls’ secondary schools had small upper sixth forms and generally poor or no science teaching at this level, especially in physics. Girls had to go to other schools to learn, and in one case the school history teacher was sent to university to study chemistry so she could teach it! One of us went to university at age 15 so she could study chemistry and physics. In contrast, the new co-educational schools in large cities and some towns had good science teaching; the girls there felt as if the teachers made sure they got the same attention as the boys. For one of us, however, it was not encouraging to be told at a school prize-giving that the girls might someday be the mothers of future Lord Rutherfords! Not surprisingly, given their poor science education at school, several women repeated what was then called ‘Medical Intermediate’, the required entry year.
At Medical School, many of us were told we were ‘taking the place of a man’ because we would be unlikely to practise for long and would have children instead. Other than this, most of us did not recall widespread sexism. A certain teacher was infamous for taunting women in the class; one of us recalled standing up to him, and he subsequently completely stopped this behaviour towards her. Another of us was sexually harassed at a GP placement in sixth year, and two more during electives overseas. None of us reported this harassment as there was no mechanism for doing so.
Many of us felt like outsiders in the medical class. We did not know at the time that others felt the same. Several women were depressed at Medical School, though we would not have characterised it as such at the time. We also remembered many positive experiences, including the support given by men and women student colleagues and teachers. Several recalled the joy of learning and the sense of being on an important pathway. Strong relationships were formed, especially for those who flatted together, and these have lasted a lifetime.
The value of talking about our lives
It was a leap of faith to plan a reunion which entailed serious talk and time to talk together, for women only. Yet it turned out to be a stunning success, freeing and bonding. Why was this so? We had known each other, even if not well, from second year medicine to fifth or sixth year. Our reunion talk was focused on our lives as women in medicine. We had prepared by writing our own stories and reading each other’s carefully. Our time together, loosely allocated to various topics, was enough for us to go over ground in depth. Each iteration revealed fresh insights and new revelations.
What emerged over our three days together was a profound, shared respect for what we had done and how we had lived. This respect crossed the lines of medical specialisation and ‘prestige’. We found we liked each other hugely, enjoyed each other’s wit and the recall of salient experiences, some of which were quite shocking. Perhaps we were now able to be frank with each other because we have moved beyond the competitive years and were now in late career, moving into retirement. We also gained deeper insight and sympathy for our younger selves: on the surface we all looked bright and eager as we started Medical School. Behind that facade, we discovered fascinating individual histories, private hardships, and, often, a lack of confidence. We parted with a sense that we had grown into ourselves, and with a new interest in the freedom of growing older.
Insights for a new generation
If we had been given the opportunity to learn more about the background and experience of our classmates as young students, this may have deepened our sympathy for each other and reduced our sense of being outsiders at Medical School. We might then have appreciated the wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and hardships among us. We are aware that today such disclosures are encouraged in small group sessions. Nevertheless, given some of our own painful backgrounds, we appreciate that such disclosures could be damaging without an atmosphere of trust.
Although attitudes to women in medicine have changed greatly since our student days, some women will still inevitably face discrimination at some time. We encourage them to respond robustly and bravely to defend themselves and others, as in the example mentioned earlier.
Most of us have raised children. For some, this entailed almost no time away from work, whereas others took at least a year off and worked part time. Some specialised before childbearing, some after; both seemed to work well. We want young women to know that it is quite possible to combine medicine and family life. There is no single right pattern of combining work and child-rearing, although there are likely to be constraints caused by competing preferences of spouses for places to work.
We have found that many of our younger women colleagues are comfortable to be seen for what they are: very intelligent and very capable. It was harder for some of us then to believe in our own capacities. This gives us confidence for the future that the younger generation of women doctors will have no problem taking their rightful place in the medical profession. Young women entering medicine, we encourage you! We hope that you will be as satisfied and fulfilled in your career choice as we have been.
Charlotte Paul and Sarah Romans were members of the graduating medical class of 1971; the others, who contributed to the reunion and to this piece, were: Lorraine Beard, Hilary Blacklock, Christina Clee, Pam Darling, Mila Doerr, Margaret Drummond-Borg, Trish McVeagh, Rosemary Parkin, Donna Patterson, Ruth Plummer, Dinah Reddihough, Annalise Seifert, Elizabeth Speer, Suzanne Wilson-Davis.