A fearless crusader for gender equality, a passionate advocate for mental health and a determined campaigner for better general health outcomes in modern Australia, Dr Nikki Stamp is a true champion for change.

As one of Australia’s few female heart and lung surgeons, Dr Stamp has long challenged the status quo in a traditionally male dominated workplace, adding volume to her voice in her capacity as an author, TV presenter and academic.

A 2018 paper, The Barriers to Women’s Participation in Surgery, found while females made up 50 per cent of all medical graduates in Australia, only 34 per cent were specialists and 12 per cent surgeons. The study also discovered a lack of women in leadership roles at medical schools. In Australia, 26 per cent of Deans were women and only five per cent of those holding head of surgery positions were female.

For Dr Stamp, gender bias plays a very real role in how the careers and lives of women in many workplaces progress.

“It’s not a positive influence either, so that is something I think warrants urgent attention,” she told Leader. “We can’t attract the best and brightest if we are excluding half the population.

“Sadly, medicine, and surgery in particular, is heavily steeped in values that are perhaps not in line with the way society is changing now, and gender bias is a big problem we face.

“Women are interested in surgery, but they are put off by a number of factors, including sexism, bullying and a lack of flexibility, and I think this is a big loss for society at large.”

Dealing with a toxic culture

Australia’s health industry was embroiled in controversy in 2015 after widespread media reports detailed an endemic problem of bullying and harassment in hospitals.

Some of Australia’s most prominent female surgeons came forward with disturbing allegations of illegal and inappropriate behaviour.

In an eye-opening story by The Age newspaper, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) was labelled an “Anglo-Saxon old boys club” by neurosurgeon Dr Caroline Tan, while vascular surgeon Dr Gabrielle McMullin told the ABC women were likely safer in their careers if they gave in to sexual advances from male colleagues.

The unprecedented spotlight prompted RACS to establish an expert advisory group (EAG) tasked with finding out how deep these issues went and how to effect change.

The EAG’s findings were damning. Research discovered workplace misconduct was common in surgical practice and training in Australia and New Zealand, with 49 per cent of fellows, trainees and international medical graduates reporting they had been subjected to discrimination, bullying or sexual harassment.

The 2015 study also found these problems were widespread across all surgical specialties, with senior surgeons and senior consultants by far the most frequently reported perpetrators.

In response, RACS introduced an action plan that promised sweeping reforms, including strengthening complaints processes and compulsory training for surgeons in discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment.

Graduating from medical school with rose-coloured glasses, Dr Stamp said she had held an idealistic view of her profession, but soon became frustrated by the blatant sexism that threatened the careers and well-being of female doctors.

“I had a really great time in my first few years after medical school and I was very idealistic and ready to save the world,” she said.

“I think I still hold some of that idealism, but it has definitely been tempered somewhat over the years as reality set in.

“For me the thing I was probably least prepared for was the gender bias in medicine. I had been brought up to know I could do anything, but not everyone shared that view.”

Dr Stamp is a passionate supporter of the #ILookLikeASurgeon campaign, which challenges the stereotypes of what your typical surgeon looks like.

Dr Stamp said in hospitals, female doctors were often mistaken for other staff members, and patients often deferred to younger male doctors over female counterparts who had far more experience.

“#ILookLikeASurgeon really filled a hole for me as a female surgeon,” she said. “It showed positive role models and went after gender stereotypes in a positive rather than antagonistic fashion.

“For me, it led to friendship, mentorship, academic collaboration, clinical collaboration and changing public perception as to what a surgeon should look like.”

While challenged by gender bias in the healthcare industry, Dr Stamp still believes in the integrity of her profession and holds faith in the good that comes from helping patients.

“It’s a very privileged thing I do to take care of people at their most vulnerable,” she said.

“I’m fortunate in that I am trusted in sometimes tenuous and critical situations, and that trust and belief in me and my team is always on my mind.

“I love the patients, because to see them recovered and well with their families is the best and biggest gift I could receive.”

Hearts and minds

While saving people’s lives on the operating table is Dr Stamp’s primary focus, she is also determined to promote preventative health, challenging people to put her out of a job by getting to the root of health issues before they end up in hospital.

Her critically acclaimed debut book, Can You Die of a Broken Heart? takes readers through the intricacies of the human heart and how it is affected by our emotions.

Proving broken heart syndrome is a very real phenomenon. Dr Stamp’s research also shows men and women don’t experience heart attacks in the same way and the latter are more likely to die if a heart attack occurs, with heart disease the leading cause of death for women worldwide.

Dr Stamp's latest book, Pretty unhealthy, questions why we often think beauty and health are the same thing. The book goes to war on the ‘wellness warriors’ flooding our social feeds with miracle diets and uneducated health advice that can actually do more harm than good.

“Pretty unhealthy is a bit of a conversation starter or maybe even a wrecking ball to ideas that we have about what health is in a time when we’re obsessed with looking healthy,” Dr Stamp said.

“We’re living in a time when there is so much confusing and varied information about how to be healthy. We’re so obsessed with it, but it’s not really working and in some cases it could be having the opposite effect.

“I hope the book gives people the tools they need to critically evaluate information and live a much healthier life out of the shadows of modern pressures. “The appearance of being healthy doesn’t always translate to actual physical or mental health.”

Speaking of mental health, Dr Stamp is acutely aware medical professionals are susceptible to anxiety and depression.

In 2014, one of her closest friends and colleagues died “after a terrible battle with his own demons”, and she vowed to do everything in her power to raise awareness of the issue.

“Medicine is a high-stress career,” Dr Stamp said. “Some specialties in particular are exposed to situations regularly that most people thankfully never ever see.”

A National Mental Health Survey of Doctors and Medical Students by Beyond Blue found doctors had substantially higher rates of psychological distress and suicidal thoughts compared to other Australian professionals.

“We also have a culture to not admit defeat, be tougher than tough and not ask for help,” Dr Stamp said.

In the Beyond Blue report, approximately 40 per cent of doctors felt medical professionals with a history of mental health disorders were perceived as less competent than their peers and 59 per cent felt being a patient was embarrassing.

“There really is a plethora of reasons, but it’s great to see people talking about mental health and taking action, because we’re really no good to anyone, patients or ourselves, if we’re not feeling our very best,” Dr Stamp said.

“It’s not good enough to sit back and hope someone else will do it or it will change of its own accord. Change will only happen if we work for it.”

Dr Stamp will be a keynote speaker at the 2019 AIM WA Annual Leadership Summit on October 23.

If you or someone you know needs help, you can call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14, or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636. Both are free 24-hour counselling services.

Michael Roberts is a Journalist at The West Australian Newspapers and is a writer for 'Leader', AIM WA's magazine for members.