We were privileged to have Professor Sue Walker as a guest speaker at our 2020 International Women’s Day event, through our partnership with the Mercy Health Foundation.
A maternal fetal medicine specialist and an academic clinical researcher with the University of Melbourne, Sue founded and continues to lead the Perinatal Medicine Department at Mercy Hospital for Women, which has flourished into a tertiary referral site for some of the highest risk pregnancies in Victoria.
Our Q&A with her in recognition of #IWD2020 touches on her early learning experiences, the role of her field in public health, and investing in the future of women.
Bank First: Your impressive career spans academic, research and clinical achievements. We’d like to go back and talk about your early academic years, and when you realised that medicine was a focus for you? Were STEM subjects something you had showed a great aptitude for early on?
Sue: I have always enjoyed STEM subjects, but my first love was music, and in fact, I thought I would pursue this as a career. So Year 12 was an eclectic group of subjects, including Chemistry/Maths but also Music and English Literature. I’ve really valued having a diverse skill set in my career, and I think these subjects set me up well for creative and innovative thought, and strengthened my abilities to write and present with clarity and passion.
Bank First: When you began your studies in medicine, did you always know you wanted to specialise in Women's’ Health? Was this an area of interest, or somewhere you saw opportunities that hadn’t yet been explored?
Sue: No, I had always thought I would do renal (kidney) medicine as a Medical Student, but when I completed my Women’s Health term as a student and junior doctor, I realised there was real opportunity here. The first 9 months of our life are a key determinant of our future health, educational outcomes and lifespan. The health of mothers is essential to the health of a community. Maternal mortality is often regarded as one of the leading indicators of a public health system. The potential to have an impact on the health of a generation and community in Women’s Health is huge, and the opportunity to be part of that was really attractive to me.
Bank First: We’re a customer owned bank with a focus on vocations within healthcare and education, two areas well-known to you as a clinical researcher, teacher and doctor. Within these vocations, we see a high proportion of women in roles like teaching (average of 83% female teachers in Australia) and nursing, however historically there has always been a higher proportion of male doctors and surgeons. While this may look different now, particularly among doctors early in their careers, was this a challenge for you?
Sue: I was fortunate to be at the watershed and to have a mentor who was hugely supportive of female trainees, and their need to interrupt their training or work part time while having young family. RANZCOG (The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists) has really led the way in this regard, and now about 80% of trainees in O and G are women! In research, there unfortunately remains significant inequity in funding/ publication and career advancement for women, but we have been fortunate to grow, support and promote many incredible women in science and they are now among the leading lights in our discipline.
Bank First: The theme for IWD this year is “Each for Equal”, and the idea that an equal world is an enabled world. There is much research on the role of gender equality in healthy communities, can you speak to this from your experience? Do you see correlations in maternal health outcomes in countries with greater gender equality in homes and workplaces?
Sue: Greater diversity makes for better health systems. There can be no doubt about that. While gender equity is hugely important, this is not the only area where inequity exists. In the health sector, women’s health means everything! It means help for young women entering puberty and their future reproductive autonomy- the inalienable right to choose if, and when, to have children. It means ensuring best health for the next generation by achieving safe motherhood and the best possible start to life. As women age, they are a huge contributor to the care burden in Australia. This means we need to ensure that the challenges of ageing for women are recognised, and supported, in the workplace. Many women who are at a senior point in their career are ‘caring up and caring down’- they are the ‘sandwich generation’ caring for both young children and elderly parents. Finally, we need to ensure that women are represented equally as medical research participants. Most of our understanding about drug effects comes from trials run in….men. It’s important for us to apply a ‘gender lens’ to medical research to ensure that all areas of the community are represented in research, and stand to benefit from its findings
Bank First: No doubt you’ve benefitted from the leadership and mentorship of other women in your profession – is this something that is a focus for you now, through your teaching? What are your thoughts on the importance of female role models and leaders?
Sue: Mentorship, and perhaps more importantly sponsorship, is very dear to me. I have benefitted from some fabulous mentors, and I want to ensure I pay it forward for the generation coming behind me. As we all the balance on the seesaw of Ambition and Altruism, we should lean more toward altruism as we become more senior in our career. My ambitions are- and should be- more tied up in the success of others.
Bank First: Can you comment on changes that you have seen within your field of Obstetrics and Gynaecology over your career? In particular I’m interested to know if you have seen a shift in the role of women/mothers in decision making about treatment, labour, and beyond? Is this something you’ve seen in research to contribute to better health outcomes?
Sue: Empowerment of women during labour and delivery, and women expressing their autonomy in reproductive rights has come a long way even in the duration of my career. Medicine overall, but perhaps Obstetrics particularly, now focusses a lot more on the importance of shared decision making- respecting women’s rights to self-determination for them and their family, and ensuring they have prompt access to accurate information with which they can make an informed choice. This is such a welcome leap forward, and I’m excited to be part of it.
Bank First is proud to support the Mercy Health Foundation through a partnership of the Bank First Community Fund, as part of our commitment to support those in the community who support others, and champion the people and organisations who make our communities better.