Why women’s networks matter: An Australasian experience

In the spring of 2018, an important conversation started in the hallways of the Emergency Department at Campbelltown Hospital – a community hospital on the fringe of Sydney, Australia. Three emergency physicians, the authors, realised we were all following the US-based FemInEM podcast and blog (feminem.org), and each of us was noticing the empowering impact that this was having on our professional and personal lives. We were hearing our own experiences as women in Emergency Medicine being echoed by women across the globe, and were drawing inspiration from their insights and responses to familiar challenges.

We carried our discussion on to social media, where it resonated and grew, and we discovered that other women emergency physicians in Sydney were seeking a place to connect and to share stories and ideas. With no such space existing in the Australasian context, we created one: NoWEM, the Network of Women in Emergency Medicine.

We started hosting events around Sydney – small gatherings after work, each featuring a local speaker. We created space to shine a light on local women who had incredible stories and untapped expertise – we were amazed at the calibre of physicians we had been working alongside whose achievements and wisdom we hadn’t fully appreciated. There was always a focus on building relationships and discussion over food and drinks, and the chance to ask questions and seek advice. Right from the beginning the energy was warm and vibrant, and the conversations honest and raw.

In the autumn of 2018 we emailed the FemInEM team to let them know the impact that their organisation was having in Sydney, and ask for their guidance on future directions. They were generous and enthusiastic in their response, and gave us the push and practical assistance we needed to expand the NoWEM community. We launched a website:nowem.org, and started publishing our own blog, extending our reach beyond Sydney and across Australasia.

During SMACC 2019 NoWEM hosted its biggest event to date. In association with FemInEM, we organized a networking evening in a beautiful venue overlooking Sydney Harbour Bridge. We welcomed 160 guests from 8 different countries (Australia, New Zealand, United States, Canada, Chile, Fiji, Sri Lanka and Switzerland) representing a range of medical, surgical and critical care specialties. Local organisations provided sponsorship, and we subsidised tickets for trainees, nurses and paramedics. The Emergency Medicine Journal promoted NoWEM and the event by featuring the voices of prominent international emergency physicians in a podcast about the importance of networking for women in
healthcare.

The current situation in Australia was described by Dr Neela Janakiramanan, Melbourne based surgeon. Women in medicine in Australia are paid less than their male counterparts, and are under-represented in leadership positions, as published authors and in formal awards and recognition. For example, there are no women on the Board of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, and only one female President in the College’s 35 year history.

A diverse group of speakers from across Australia and the USA participated in a panel discussion about the importance of diversity, inclusion and equity in Emergency Medicine. Organisations need diversity to maximise innovation, leverage talent and meet the needs of the community they serve. Individuals need a sense of belonging, inclusion and respect to thrive and bring their best to an organisation.

Women often see their lack of advancement as an individual deficiency, believing in the myth of meritocracy. But the discussions made it more apparent that it is usually systemic barriers commonly hold women back from reaching their potential. Danielle Kelly, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at an international law firm, discussed what happens when organisations use targets and quotas as a solution to under-representation of women in senior positions: The women out-perform the men they replaced. Women in leadership can help organisations perform better.

Dr Andy Tagg, an emergency physician based in Melbourne, spoke about the need for men to rise up as “champions of change” in order to create and sustain cultures of diversity and inclusion. Dr Dara Kass, an emergency physician from the USA and FemInEM founder discussed how gender inequality and the stereotyping of roles are restrictive for men as well as women. Treating all physicians equally releases both men and women from confining assumptions, and presents an opportunity to reframe the work environment in a way that optimises our humanity and individuality.

Dr Esther Choo, an emergency physician from the USA, spoke about Time’s Up Healthcare, a social welfare organization she co-founded that is working to increase women’s safety, equity and power at work. Dr Choo advised: “every time we step up we should immediately look around for women we can pull up with us”.

Women’s networks allow us to realise that we are not alone with our personal experiences of inequality and unconscious bias. They empower us with resilience and resources, generating the collective power necessary to forge a safer and more equitable future for our profession. Most importantly, they give us space to share, to be heard and to find belonging, leading to more satisfactory and successful career paths.

Networks offer a model of organisational culture that celebrates diversity, inclusion and equity, and create a path so the success of one woman can lead to the success of others. As Dr. Kass said “It’s always better together. It is always better to rise together. It’s a better lived experience, it’s more sustainable.”

Building on this groundwork of connection and collaboration, NoWEM now operates across several states of Australia and in New Zealand, and is strengthening relationships with women in Fiji and the Philippines.

Dr Rhiannon Browne
Campbelltown Hospital,
Campbelltown NSW, AUSTRALIA

Dr Ellen Meyns
Prince of Wales Hospital
Sydney, NSW, Australia

Dr Helen Rhodes
Campbelltown Hospital
Sydney, NSW, Australia

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