Neurosurgeon Professor Kate Drummond discusses the gender disparity in the field of surgery and the role her religious beliefs play in her life.
Professor Kate Drummond (TCTS 2021) was built for this. Neurosurgery – a medical speciality so dominated by men that she was only the fourth woman in Australia and New Zealand to enter the field. Unbelievably, that was in the 1990s. While opportunities for women are slightly more forthcoming now, thanks to pioneers like Kate, there is still a long way to go. It is Kate Drummond’s passion for her work, which includes a steadfast determination to increase the number of women in the field, that is effecting real-world change.
Kate grew up in Sydney. She studied medicine at the University of Sydney with the aim of ending up in obstetrics, because she ‘didn’t want to look after sick people’. She quickly changed her mind after delivering a baby and landed on neurosurgery when she was required to undertake a neurosurgery term as an intern. She trained in Sydney and Melbourne and at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School, in Boston, which she loved.
Since 2004, Kate has been a neurosurgeon at The Royal Melbourne Hospital and, in 2017, was appointed Director of Neurosurgery – an amazing feat considering in 2020 there were 255 neurosurgeons in Australia with only 15 per cent of those being women. In 2021, of the 11 people appointed to train in neurosurgery in Australia and New Zealand, only one was a woman. It’s a system that Kate says is ‘broken’.
‘Medical school has been equally or predominantly female since the `80s. But surgery has a real problem with gender inequity and it's a million small things,’ Kate says. ‘It's the medical student who says, "I'm interested in surgery." And the surgeon says, "Oh, but don't you want a family?" It's the lack of proper parental leave. It's a million tiny comments. It is all of those things. And until we socially engineer that 50 per cent of surgeons are women, that stuff will not go away because the culture will not change. It's a hostile culture for many women.’
In 2016, the College of Surgeons devised a diversity and inclusion plan, which stated that by 2021, 40 per cent of trainees would be female. ‘We’re not even close,’ Kate says. While she is adamant that change is possible, it requires both hard-hitting policy change and changes to workplace culture.
‘You really need to work harder to normalise it. I feel very strongly about socially engineering the number of women who are in there, because I think the other cultural changes will improve when there's more women,’ she says. ‘I've got two trainees who are women, both of whom have children … one is pregnant with her second child. I feel strongly about normalising parental issues for surgeons, particularly for women. If someone has to care for a small child, there should be the opportunity for cover, like in so many other industries.’
Another thing women need are role models – strong women paving the way for the next generation. Kate is one of those people. So how did she do it? How did she achieve such success in an industry with virtually no female presence?
‘I really have this very strong sense that I was sort of manoeuvred into the job,’ Kate says. ‘The image I have in my head is that God was behind me, sort of pushing me in various directions. And I just landed where I was supposed to land.’
The Anglican faith has been a constant in her life, from a very young age. Adopted by the Anglican Adoption Services as a two-week-old, Kate has had a lifelong interest in theological studies. She attained a preliminary theological certificate from Moore College as a surgical trainee and is currently completing a graduate diploma at Trinity’s Theological School. The graduate diploma is a stepping stone to a PhD, which will focus on theology and medicine.
Kate is also a Canon at St Paul’s Cathedral and is famous for her children’s talks. ‘I can do any Bible talk with a plastic dinosaur,’ she laughs.
At work, sometimes Kate will have faith-based conversations with her patients, quite often as they are going into theatre. ‘There’s an extraordinary number of believers in medicine,’ she says. ‘Religious people in general are drawn to healing professions.’
Professor Kate Drummond is Director of Neurosurgery at The Royal Melbourne Hospital and is Head of Central Nervous System Tumours for the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre Parkville Precinct. Among her many accolades is the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) Medal for services to RACS. She was also appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for services to medicine, particularly in the field of neuro-oncology and community health. She serves as Chair of Pangea Global Health Education and has published more than 150 peer-reviewed articles and many book chapters. She serves on national cancer and brain tumour professional and patient groups. She is co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience and past chief examiner in neurosurgery for the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.
This article first appeared in issue #90 of Trinity Today.