Balancing the demands of being a surgeon with having children keeps women out of the profession, female doctors say.
A Royal Australasian College of Surgeons work force report shows 7.5 per cent of New Zealand's surgical fellows are women, up from 6 per cent in 2005.
In Australia, 7.7 per cent of surgeons are women.
Christchurch surgeon Jane MacDonald was the second woman in New Zealand to qualify as a urological surgeon in 2001.
She said she was the only woman on her training course, but women now made up about half of the trainees.
The small number of women surgeons was not about lack of opportunity but all about biology, she said. The most intense training period, which required total commitment to the career, was between the ages of 25 and 35 – a woman's prime childbearing years, MacDonald said.
"Women have got more to lose by embarking on surgery because of the family thing, and that's nobody's fault; it's just the way it is."
She said registrars had to spend many hours at the hospital, as well as sit exams, move to different centres around New Zealand every December and then spend years overseas to complete a fellowship.
"I think women should think very carefully about going into surgery and think about the importance of having a family," she said.
"I love it and wouldn't change it, but it's awfully hard work and not conducive to family life."
She said urology was appealing to women because it was an elective surgery, meaning hours could be more flexible if they wanted children.
MacDonald married at age 40 and she and her husband adopted a son a year ago. She now works a three-day week, as well as being on call.
"You can have a family and be a female surgeon, but don't expect it to be easy," she said.
The next generation of female registrars seemed to have it "all sussed", with some already planning their work-share arrangements to allow them to have children, she said.
Surgical registrar Magda Sakowska, 32, said about half of those on her training scheme were female.
She said being a surgeon was not an easy job, and balancing it with personal life depended on organisation.
"You just have to be flexible about it and accept that you make sacrifices along the way ," she said.
She spent 30 hours at the hospital over the weekend, and recently worked 78 hours over seven days.
"It's a reasonable amount of work, but I love my job," Sakowska said.
Medical Students' Association president Liz Carr said New Zealand needed to make the most of a boost in the number of medical school graduates.
"A lot of my colleagues are interested in surgery but don't want to put off having a family," she said.
"The college has recognised the need to be more flexible in their training scheme, but the difficulty is how they can maintain the quality of education and the delivery of health services while balancing that with flexible or part-time work."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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