Professor Margaret Schnitzler recognised for leadership

When Professor Margaret Schnitzler started her medical career 40 years ago, she couldn’t have imagined she would go on to be considered by others as a “trailblazer.” While carving out a successful career herself, she is surprised and disappointed that today, there is still an under representation of women in senior medical leadership positions despite the wealth of talented women in medicine.

As chair of the NSLHD Advancing Women in Medical Leadership working group, Margaret is working with other senior leaders to change the status quo and celebrate women in medical leadership. Margaret was recently awarded the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Surgeons NSW State Committee 2023 Women in Leadership Medal for Leadership in the field of surgery, and in promoting and achieving equality. She said progress in increasing women in senior positions is slow. “When we look at gender balance in senior medical staff (in the district), we now have two years of data. There hasn’t been a significant increase in the proportion of female staff in that time – less than 1.5% per cent,” she said. “In surgery, there is 84 per cent men and 16 per cent women.”

When Margaret became a surgical trainee in 1987, she was only the second general surgery registrar at Royal North Shore Hospital. She went on to become the first female general surgeon appointed to the staff in Northern Sydney Local Health District and holds the title of being the first female colorectal surgeon in Australia. “To me, I have just been doing my own business. I have never considered myself a trailblazer,” Margaret said.

Tapping into the pool of talented female registrars who start their careers at the district to become senior leaders is a priority for Margaret who has recently been appointed as the first female Professor of Surgery at the University of Sydney. Approximately 50 per cent of new medical graduates each year are female, but many don’t go on to hold senior positions within their chosen medical fields, for reasons Margaret and her colleagues are trying to change. “You should do what you like. No one knows what is ahead in life,’’ she said. “I always encourage people to pursue their passion and look at the possibilities not the obstacles that could crop up. There is so much more flexibility in the workplace now.”