02/09/2015 5:29 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

We Need More Women To Blaze Trails In A Man's World

female surgeon closeup in hospital
Dragana Jokmanovic via Getty Images
female surgeon closeup in hospital

Growing up, I had no idea about the power of gender. None.

I did not know that I would be deemed a mother or wife first and a contributor second. I did not understand that sometimes purely being female is enough to preclude me from jobs or sports or careers in the eyes of some people. I was brought up in a house where gender wasn't an issue and where I believed I could do whatever I wanted, so long as I worked hard.

In my profession women make up less than 10 percent of surgeons. In Australia, female medical students make up over half of students in most universities. Yet we seem to have huge trouble attracting women to certain specialties like surgery or leadership roles.

Following on from this, of those women who do choose a path less trodden, the retention rates are less. Women are 2-3 times more likely to leave surgical training.

I am acutely aware that medicine is not alone in this statistic. Despite more women graduating from law than men in Australia, there are fewer practising female lawyers. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics hold similar numbers of only 25 percent of women in these roles. And of the Fortune 500 companies, 26 -- or 5.2 percent -- of CEOs are women.

In a world where women are outnumbering and outperforming men, where are all of the women in the workplace?

I don't know where they are. There is a serious shortage of women in professions that are traditionally dominated by men. And I believe this is one of many, but one important factor in why we seem to be failing to deliver in getting women into these careers and positions.

As a junior doctor, my mentors and role models were all men. And they were fantastic to me. They taught me, guided me and advised me and even pointed out some of the things that may occur because of my gender.

There are many barriers that face women who are trying to achieve in professional realms. The balance of a family (including one that does not yet exist), subtle or overt sexual discrimination or harassment and misaligned perceptions are all a reality for a number of women in professional careers.

A number of women will indeed leave their careers because of one or more of these factors. There is evidence to suggest that gender-specific mentors and role models are a key way to attract and retain women to all of these professions.

Later on in my career, I did meet female surgeons. And while I didn't always work with them, or form mentoring-type relationships with them, the fact that they were there was like a small beacon of hope for me.

I am occasionally invited to speak at university career nights on women in surgery and I never know what they want to hear from me. It turns out, they just want to know I exist, that it can be done. The women I know of, in any field, who are trailblazing in a man's world can be described in one word: Inspiring.

When we have women in positions of power or having made great achievements, the impact will be great in future generations. They will aspire to these positions and so, hopefully, our gender balance will improve.

As we see more women in traditionally 'male' fields, the benefits can be great. When we can truly select our leaders, lawyers, doctors or engineers from the whole population, not just men, we can attract the best and brightest.

Currently, the lack of visible role models for women is harming women. As we get more women into visible positions in male-dominated professions, the future generations will be inspired to dizzying heights, even beyond their predecessors.