Liz Dennett

Specialist colorectal surgeon

Liz Dennett is a specialist colorectal surgeon, working in both the public and private health systems in Wellington.  She is a senior lecturer in surgery at Otago University and is the first New Zealand female general surgeon appointed to the court of examiners of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.

The privilege of medicine

“I always wanted to be a surgeon. I love operating when it’s going well; there can be an amazing camaraderie and team work. Medicine is an amazingly privileged profession; you see people at their most vulnerable and they share with you things they can’t tell their families. It’s a privilege you have to earn, and something you have to respect.

“I was initially interested in liver surgery, but a professor advised me to think about where the jobs might be, saying that there were few openings for liver surgeons. I had done colorectal research and I had a colorectal mentor, so I got on a training scheme and that was it.”

Women are bringing change to medicine…

“When I was thinking of applying for medical school information at that time advised women to think about whether they really want to do it, because women often leave medicine to have babies, and it costs a lot to train a doctor.   However, I never had anything less than great support when I was training. All my mentors were male though and I was constantly asked if I had enjoyed sewing when I was younger.

“The feminisation of the medical workforce is bringing about positive change. The increase in women means we have seen more of a drive to better work-life balance and an acknowledgement that people don’t want to work full-time.

“Having more women in medicine has driven the need to be more collaborative and supportive; we’re not working in isolation, there’s more awareness and acknowledgement of human vulnerability.”

… But they still face challenges

“Work-life balance is difficult, especially for those with families. Some women leave having children until they have finished their training, which means they are having children later in life when it becomes more difficult, or they take time out from their careers, which means missing opportunities because they’re out of the system.

“Some trainees feel lesser beings if they want to do their training flexibly, so because of that people might not ask for it when they could do it that way."

Change, choices and compromise

“No matter what you do, you have to compromise. A lot of women come into the career thinking they can have the perfect home life, do the research and get the great job doing exactly what they want. But there’s got to be some compromise. You may not get the job you want, but most people end up happy with what they have.

“We’re still told that women can do it all. We can, but not all at once. That doesn’t mean women can’t do things, but they have to realise they can’t be perfect. A lot of the women I see don’t deal with failure.  Men face the same problems, but women are more aware of it.”

The woman who influenced my career

“When I was in med school, Professor Norma Restioux was so inspiring she actually made me want to do cardiology. She was an amazing teacher, and amazing with patients. I know there are a number of other female consultants who would identify her as an amazing leader.”

I want to inspire young women to study medicine

“I would like to be remembered as someone who was supportive and a mentor to students coming through, particularly to surgical trainees. I’d like to inspire them to follow my choices.

“I want to say to them, ‘go for it; nothing should hold you back. There’s an amazing array of things you can do, you shouldn’t feel that there is anything in your way’.”

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