IWD: The fight against misogyny in healthcare ‘is not over’

Michelle Wisbey

27/02/2024 4:29:56 PM

A former UN Medical Director is sharing her inspiring story as part of the RACGP’s International Women’s Day Queensland event.

Dr Jillann Farmer
Dr Jillann Farmer visiting a quarantine facility in Liberia during the Ebola outbreak.

When Dr Jillann Farmer walked into the United Nations (UN) headquarters, something felt different.
She was living in New York a long way from her Queensland home, had just started work as the organisation’s Medical Director, and was responsible for the safety of thousands of UN personnel and its healthcare facilities across the globe.
But it wasn’t the job that made Dr Farmer feel different, nor the unfamiliar city, or the responsibility she now held.
It was the realisation she no longer had to rely on the backing of men to do her job.
‘This is a really confronting thing for Australian women to hear, but I realised that for the first time in my life, I did not need a male sponsor to put forward my view,’ she told newsGP.
‘My experience up to that point in Queensland had been that it was fine for me to be smart and assertive, but I always needed the backing of some powerful men to vouch for me.
‘But at the UN, for the first time in my life, I was unleashed to be my full self without needing to manage the egos of the men around me, and that was a very transformative realisation.’
Dr Farmer is a GP by trade – she has worked in regional Australian towns, was a Deputy Director General in Queensland Health, and a doctor in chaotic emergency departments.
As well as her clinical work, she is the current CEO of A Better Culture, an organisation determined to stamp out bullying, harassment, racism, and discrimination in workplaces.
But looking back at her career, Dr Farmer said it was a series of coincidences that carved out her path in healthcare.
‘I was off doing a professional development course for women’s empowerment at Harvard and on the way back in the plane, someone handed me a copy of The Economist, and it had some job ads and I saw a couple of things that I thought I might be able to do,’ she said.
‘I got a subscription and the first edition that I got in my mailbox had the UN Medical Director job, so I applied for that and ended up working there for eight years.’
During her tenure, she travelled across the world, from Kazakhstan, to Liberia, and everywhere else in between.
Dr Farmer said she loved the work, but after almost a decade in America, it was time to come home.
‘I left New York at peak COVID, it was the first wave in New York when ventilators were being rationed and it was frankly quite terrifying,’ she said.
‘I just wanted to get back to my clinical roots.’
Dr Farmer said it was exciting to get back onto home soil, but she soon suffered a reverse culture shock.
‘When I returned to Australia, it was extremely difficult to adjust back to that, and it was difficult for the men who worked with me because they were not accustomed to having a woman who didn’t give a flying f*** about them,’ she said.
‘It really pains me when I see what happens to female colleagues who do adjust, because I didn’t realise it, it was just the way we worked, it was a normal part of the operating environment.
‘It’s like if you’ve grown up in smog, and then one day you breathe fresh air.’

IWD-Queensland-article.jpgDr Jillann Farmer examining a mobile field hospital on an evaluation mission to Kazakhstan.
A staunch advocate for fairness and equality, Dr Farmer will be sharing her story and her call to action at the Queensland leg of the RACGP’s International Women’s Day event series.
As part of her speech, she will be recounting her stories of ‘overt misogyny’ she has experienced and witnessed in the Australian workplace.
‘There was one story that really stood out to me, and it was to do with a very well-regarded woman, and behind closed doors the language that was used to describe her to me was appalling – they said she was crazy, and she was problematic,’ Dr Farmer said.
‘This was a person who was achieving at an incredibly high level and there was nothing but dismissal and diminution coming from the men in the room.
‘And the men would say to me “oh, but you’re not like that, you’re one of us”, as if the greatest compliment you can pay a woman is to tell her that she’s one of the boys.
‘Women get burned, and they get torn down, and I put up with a lot.’
Dr Farmer said there is a long list of things that need changing if Australia is ever to reach true gender equality.
‘One of the things I’m passionate about is that medical reporting data of the experiences of doctors must be gender disaggregated, and it’s not at the moment,’ she said.
‘We’ve got to insist that government adheres to its policies of both gender awareness and gender mainstreaming.
‘Gender mainstreaming means that every policy decision is considered through a gender lens, but in an environment where people believe gender equity has been achieved, there is a reluctance to do that because it forces them to face some uncomfortable truths.’
And as she pushes forward in her fight for change, Dr Farmer’s ultimate piece of advice for women is simple.
‘If you think something is inappropriate, be prepared to say, and if the person on the receiving end of it isn’t in a powerful enough position to say so, intervene on their behalf,’ she said.
‘Just don’t put up with it.’
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #CountHerIn, with RACGP events being held across Australia and online on 7 and 8 March.
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