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Dr Rashmi Sharma OAM advocates for more women in executive positions and governance roles
This year, Dr Rashmi Sharma of Canberra became the youngest woman of Indian origin to be honoured with the OAM.
She was felicitated “for service to medicine, and to professional organisations”.
As a clinical practitioner, as a medical educator, and as a member of many advisory committees, Dr Sharma has impressed in many and varied roles.
“It is a great unexpected honour,” Dr Sharma tells Indian Link. “I have held public roles where I have tried my best to advocate for my profession as well as build up a successful general practice and teach the future generation of doctors. It is very humbling to have this work recognised by the community I have served. I will continue to work to the best of my ability in my current roles which include national representational roles where I will try and influence health policy makers to ensure health policy meets the needs of the community and clinicians.”
Her honour comes at a time when a spate of women from our community have been winning acclaim for their role in the sciences, and she joins an exclusive club of the likes of Veena Sahajwalla, Minoti Apte, Ranjana Srivastava and Nalini Joshi. Luckily for us in the Indian community, many of our young women do take up science as careers, not only in medicine but also engineering and robotics. Still, there’s no doubt we need more women in the sciences. But for Dr Sharma, it’s breaking through that glass ceiling that is most motivating.
“I think we do pretty well in women pursuing science, there are more women studying medicine in Australia than men, but I think the issue is the recognition of women in these senior roles,” Dr Sharma observes. “We know that there is a lack of female representation in leadership and governance roles, and this is magnified when you then look at women of Indian origin. I think this reflects on Australian society as a whole where we know gender equity is still an issue and then from an Indian cultural perspective we are still breaking down issues of family expectations and stereotypes. Finally, I think as women we are often too modest when celebrating our successes which means we are often the quiet achievers in the corner. I hope my OAM encourages Indian women to tread into the world of leadership and national roles – we have a lot to offer and need to push our way forward into this scene.”
Dr Sharma moved to Australia in 1993 after finishing med school in UK where she was born. Today, her expertise has seen her contribute in senior roles with the Australian Medical Association, Medical School Advisory Board, GP leadership and training groups, hospital network councils and government committees. She is also currently Adjunct Associate Professor at the ANU.
In many of these executive roles, Dr Sharma claims she is often the only brown face at the table.
“There just aren’t enough of us in high-profile positions. Perhaps because we think we won’t get them? But we are definitely capable of influencing policy and changing it.”
She herself does not shy away from flaunting her Indian heritage.
“I have always enjoyed being able to influence the national scene with my Indian side, for example, insisting on pure vegetarian food at my meetings at government departments, declining invites to Parliament House events because they clashed with Diwali, and attending formal events to give out prizes wearing traditional Indian attire. I have only ever experienced appreciation from my fellow Australians when they see me proud of my cultural background.”
What would she say, though, to the oft-quoted lament about the draconian laws about admitting India-qualified (or overseas-trained) doctors?
“Australia has one of the best health systems in the world and part of that is attributable to the high standards it demands of its health professionals. I myself had to sit the Australian Medical Council exams when I migrated from the UK. The standards are there to protect the community rather than shut out doctors from a particular country – we see doctors from India being very successful in Australia and I have had the privilege of teaching some of them. I agree the process of navigating the system to get through the relevant exams and get qualifications recognised can be complex, but I think people need to persevere, link into local help and see how they go.”
There are many instances when doctors don’t make it in the first go, but these are probably because of cultural issues, Dr Sharma notes. “During my time in Canberra I’ve seen more and more Indians get through and they’re doing well.”
To young doctors from India who are unable to get a job here easily, Dr Sharma has a few words of advice. “Keep trying. But remember that there are now large numbers of local graduates entering the market and the need is in regional and rural Australia rather than big cities. Life in regional and rural Australia can be very rewarding though so certainly worth considering.”
Her own early placement was in rural Queensland, aged 23-24. “I was replacing a senior doctor called Karan Sengupta in a small town with a population of 250. It was a great little place – very welcoming.”
An increasing trend amongst successful clinical practitioners in the Indian diaspora, are regular forays back to the home country to provide medical intervention in areas that need them desperately.
Dr Sharma has been doing such work herself.
“I think we all have a duty to help those less fortunate than us. At the moment we collect a lot of stuff from our surgery in terms of medical supplies to take to charitable hospitals in India. In addition we have a patient who has sewn 20,000 (yes, twenty thousand!) dresses for a school in India for underprivileged girls, as well as knitted thousands of jumpers. She is Australian, aged 83, and all the cloth and wool is donated by patients in our surgery.”
Dr Sharma has herself sponsored a girl in the school, taking upon herself the care of her educational and medical needs.
Dr Sharma got a unique perspective into what it means to be a patient, when she was herself diagnosed with not one but two forms of cancer, the first one as an adolescent. “It was particularly interesting to note how the older generation dealt with it, especially the implications that had in terms of marriage prospects!”
It was an eye-opener that, within the community, some people would want to hide such illness or not get help, or hold it against people.
It was also educational in other ways. “I learnt that patients can feel very disempowered, not being able to make informed decisions. Having been on both sides of the table, I feel I have learnt how to look after my own patients better.”
Clearly, Dr Sharma is an unstoppable force, turning each of her life experiences into valuable lessons and building on them for wider benefit.
What’s a typical day like, for someone so busy?
“I have an unusual life,” Dr Sharma laughs. “I live in Murwillumbah in northern NSW with my children Rishabha and Anuradha, husband Stuart and my parents on my farm. I commute to Canberra for work. So I spend three days away from home, either in Canberra at my surgery or government departments, and/or in Sydney and Melbourne doing my government work, and then spend four days at home where I head up GP training for the North Coast region. It’s a bit nutty, but I enjoy it! I think I get the best of both worlds – a high-powered career as well as family life – and have managed to create balance. So there is no such thing as a typical day. I love all parts of my job – the joy of looking after my patients, running a private business, teaching the next generation of doctors, assisting in the development of health policy and advocating for my profession.”
The farm life, complete with cows, is something Dr Sharma always wanted. “The cows are our pets – we got our first cow Nandi years ago for a traditional grihapravesh (housewarming) ceremony. We want to build a cow sanctuary.”
No doubt the extended family back in India’s UP state (Rae Bareli and Moradabad, to be precise), will be impressed.
To young women in the Indian community, Rashmi Sharma is an impeccable role model, forging bold new pathways at both the professional and personal levels.