In celebration of International Women’s Day tomorrow, we hear from neurosurgeons Alison Wray, Wirginia Maixner and Juliet Clayton.
Looking back at a photo of Resident Medical Staff from 1925, the team speak about their experiences in navigating a traditionally male dominated field of work and where they see their department heading in the future.
Tell us about your RCH journey.
Wirginia: I’ve been part of The Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) since 1995, where I started as a registrar. In 2001, I was fortunate enough to take over as Head of Department and I held that role up until 2019.
Juliet: I came here as a fellow, but then finished up my training in England and then Brisbane. I’ve been here as a consultant since 2013.
Alison: I started as a registrar in 2003. From there I was a fellow and then consultant in 2004 and 2005 respectively. This year, I was appointed as Head of Department with big shoes to fill, left by Wirginia.
What does International Women’s Day mean to you?
Wirginia: I think this day is about recognising the role of women in the workforce, at home and in society as voices of change. I also believe this day is not only for women, but for any other group that is not recognised enough for their value in the workforce or beyond, such as racial minorities, those with disabilities or people who in some way or another feel as if they’re not on equal footing.
Alison: I’m in two minds about this day. Part of me wants to celebrate the achievements of women, but another part of me feels like we shouldn’t need a single day to do that. I like to think of myself as a neurosurgeon that happens to be a woman, rather than a woman neurosurgeon.
Juliet: My thoughts echo those of Wirginia, who highlighted that this should be a day for all people who are not treated as equals, whether that be due to their race, religion or a disability. I also hope that by continuing to push for gender equality, there will be more mutual respect between men and women and this will have a positive effect on domestic violence.
What is it like working in a traditionally male dominated field?
Wirgina: My early exposure entering into a male dominated field as a women was extremely difficult, and there was a lot of negativity throughout that process. However, I think as women continue to enter this field and their value is recognised, we get closer to that not being the case. When I speak to trainees that are coming through now, I find that their perceptions are markedly different to what mine were when I first started, which is a positive change.
Juliet: I felt very well supported throughout my training and beyond. I’ve been lucky in the sense that things had already started to change when I entered my training and I felt like I was on a level footing. I felt like I was in a team of people, rather than being in a group of eight men and myself, which is what the ratio actually was.
Which women are you inspired by?
Wirginia: My mother was a very resilient woman with a very dominant personality, but she was intensely family focused. She was fierce, but at the same time, very compassionate and caring. She’s inspired me because those are the qualities I’ve taken into my professional life.
Alison: I’ve been inspired by Wirginia throughout my time here. When I trained, there weren’t any neurosurgeon role models for me to learn from. When I came to Melbourne, it was fantastic to have someone like Wirginia in place, who became a role model not just professionally, but in life as well.
Juliet: For me, the perception of what I could achieve has come from how I’ve grown up. My mother had to be very resilient in life because we lost my father at an early stage. She was always very encouraging and I grew up feeling like I could achieve whatever I wanted to. She showed me that with determination, hard work and faith, anything was possible. She also taught me to treat everyone with respect and kindness.
Other women who inspire me are Greta Thunberg and Malala. Both very courageous, young women from humble beginnings, fighting for incredibly important issues with passion and purpose. They give me hope for a better future.
What is one of your greatest achievements?
Wirginia: One of my greatest achievements has been at the RCH, where I have helped grow a unit that is cohesive, based on respect, and where people can be nurtured to become the best they can be. Having Alison take over as Head of Department, and the way that our staff grow here into leadership roles and continue to make positive contributions, makes me incredibly proud.
Alison: I’ve put a huge effort into raising my daughter and continue to do that every day. From a professional viewpoint, people often only hear about the well known media stories. However, there are a lot of children that I work with that live with a lot of pain or disability. I think a major achievement for me is being able to improve their quality of life or burden of pain. Removing tumours and saving lives are amazing achievements, but anything I can do for these children that make their day to day better is just as significant for me.
Juliet: I am proud to have got to where I am as a consultant here at the RCH, and am proud to be working alongside surgeons of the calibre of Wirginia and Alison. In my personal life, I am also blessed to have 3 beautiful children for whom I dedicate whatever time I have away from work. It is challenging being a paediatric neurosurgeon with three small children, but I always try to find the right balance!
This year the RCH is celebrating 150 years of care, what do you think the RCH’s future looks like?
Wirginia: When I was a registrar, the RCH had an incredible family feel to it – you didn’t just work here, you were also part of a family. I think that will continue to be part of our future. We’ve also continued to grow and innovate each year since I’ve been here, and I think that will continue to happen. We always have the care of the child at the heart of everything we do, so despite external challenges and constraints, we are always going to find a way to improve. So it’s a very positive future for us in that respect.
Alison: The RCH has always been good at integrating technological advancements into the institution, which I think we’ll continue to do well. I anticipate that the way we engage with families will continue to develop, which has always been a very important relationship at the RCH. With the widespread availability of information to families through the internet, user groups and all of our own resources, we will work with them much more on the decision-making process and the way we deliver care.
Juliet: We’re a fantastic resource state wide, interstate and even globally. The way our resources are accessed around the world makes us such a highly respected institution, and I can’t see that changing. I think our great links with our campus partners will enable us to keep on researching, innovating and growing.
How do you think medicine has changed/progressed over time and how would you like to see it change/progress in the future?
Alison: We’d like to be out of a job, and for children not to need us anymore! That aside, we have made great progress with the way we manage children, even from birth. The way we approach tumours is quite different. There are some tumours that we don’t need to do a big operation on, and we can treat with targeted therapies instead. I think it will continue to evolve so that we can do minimally invasive things for children to get the best outcomes for them.