Dr Payal Mukherjee is a surgeon making waves in a traditionally male-dominated role. She’s also paving the way for and encouraging girls—her daughter included—to have a greater impact in the world they’ll inherit.
From the burning of the bra to the girl power era, we are continuing to nurture young women to believe they can be anything. Women are now represented more equitably in many typically male-dominated industries. For example, the representation of men to women in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine) is now almost 50–50 at an undergraduate level.
Encouraging statistics like these wouldn’t exist without strong female role models who strive to open young women’s eyes to the possibilities and opportunities available to them.
One of these advocates is Dr Payal Mukherjee. An ear, nose and throat surgeon at Sydney Adventist Hospital, 2019 NSW Woman of the Year nominee, associate professor, and mother, she firmly believes in the power of equality and education.
Dr Payal Mukherjee with NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian (right), and the nominees for the 2019 NSW Woman of the Year.
The first thing that strikes you about Dr Payal is her warm, dimpled smile. She is an engaging conversationalist with a manner that puts you instantly at ease—something I’m sure her patients of all ages, and their families, appreciate. Despite many achievements in her field, she is down-to-earth and willingly shares stories from her childhood.
“My parents came from humble backgrounds. Pursuing better opportunities, we moved a lot in India and also to the Middle East, before we arrived in Australia.” Dr Payal was 13 years old at the time, and Sydney offered them a place to put down roots. “We felt proud to make home a country that is multicultural and values peace and equality.”
Living in several places before then proved to be a positive thing. “Even though many would perceive these changes as disruptive, I feel the frequent travel has infected me with a curiosity to learn about others, value diversity and also adapt to change, all of which are assets in my profession.”
Education is highly valued by Dr Payal and her close-knit family. “My parents ensured our education and wellbeing were of the utmost importance, through all our life and school changes.”
She speaks with admiration and fondness as she describes summers spent with her grandparents when they lived in India. “Their stories, and thereby the values that shaped them, they passed onto me. My grandmother would share with me her passion for medicine and the circumstances of war and political instability that withheld her from seeking opportunities for further education. She inspired me not to take the opportunities I got for granted.
“She was a strong advocate for gender equity, and at a time when there were many set gender roles, she taught me to pursue education, have a profession, be financially independent and make a difference in the world. All her children admired her for these values, so I was always encouraged and supported by my immediate and also extended family (aunts and uncles) ever since I was a young girl to never hold back on my dreams on account of my gender.” It’s clear progressive thinking runs through the bloodline.
As a leader in the development and adoption of technology within medicine, Dr Payal animatedly describes this area of her work. “The rapidity at which technology affects surgery is really quite astounding. The change is so rapid and, in some cases, so disruptive, that we are having to rapidly evolve as a society to constantly re-evaluate the very basic definitions of medical devices, manufacturers, suppliers, even access and equity. It means that as professionals we have increasing cross-disciplinary collaborations with experts to discuss the ethical, regulatory and legal implications of our research. I think it’s very exciting to be at the forefront of those conversations across disciplines, which you wouldn’t normally do as a surgeon; conversations to make us all adapt and evolve together as a society.”
That society encompasses generation Z (those born in the mid-’90s to the early 2000s). With an eight-year-old daughter, Dr Payal has first-hand experience of watching how children take a piece of technology and combine it with their natural creativity. “My daughter wanted to come to the virtual reality lab at Sydney University, and we took a couple of her friends. By the end of the morning, they had not only adopted and mastered the technology but were already creating digital assets. Giving some of this knowledge to the younger generation—who are incredibly empowered with superior technology skills—is important to educate them early about the responsibilities that come with it.”
It’s sometimes hard to comprehend that 80 per cent of jobs that will exist in 2030 don’t exist today. But Dr Payal believes the signs are already there that those careers will be ones that enable her daughter’s generation to be “creative and observant. To identify new areas of need and be motivated and entrepreneurial to go out there to innovate.”
As a society, we’ve come a long way in helping girls form non-gender specific ideas about careers—we now encourage them to role play doctors, pilots and fire fighters. Dr Payal believes it’s just as important however, “that we don’t criticise our boys for playing more feminine roles: such as telling off your son for liking pink or purple or liking fairies or ballerinas. Telling them at a young age not to role play something because they would be thought of as a girl raises young boys with an association at a very young age that being thought of as a girl is inferior and therefore perhaps, girls are inferior.”
It’s a thought-provoking point; one I’m sure is based on the belief in equity passed down from her grandmother.
Dr Payal with her mother, Manju, and daughter, Eesha, met former NSW Governor David Hurley at Government House as part of her nomination celebration.
Dr Payal’s compassion for humanity is evident in all aspects of her work and life. Her patient’s problems are what inspire her to undertake medical research. “To be able to improve their quality of life, their understanding of their disease and empower them to be involved in the decision-making about their health is a rewarding experience. I feel very excited if I can take a problem from the clinic, work on it and bring it back to my patients. It is rewarding to be able to be very creative with these ideas, identify unmet needs in medicine and work together in diverse teams to solve those problems to make a tangible difference to someone’s life. It doesn’t really get much better than that for a doctor.”
Her young family and her work are inextricably linked. “Some of my daughter’s baby toys have made their way into my waiting room—perhaps she feels she contributes to my work. Some of the shows she watches allow me to engage with my paediatric patients—so by default, she knows she makes me a better doctor.
“I like to involve her in some of my research initiatives, not only because it educates her about a larger conversation happening in society by men and women about gender equity and exposes her to many other amazing female leaders around us, but so she can spread that message to her peer group and influence their beliefs as well.
“More often than not, the voices of children (and, in my case, my daughter’s) surprise me with their insights, and it really blows me away how much impact the youth can have on causes they are passionate about. She feels then quite empowered by this involvement and somehow, in my own way, it also allows me to be a better parent as we share common connections.”
Being able to create a “village” around her daughter has helped Dr Payal to build a career as well as give back to the community through her domestic violence prevention work. I ask how this came about and she recounts a moment of discomfort with a patient who had an injury caused by her husband. The patient was more afraid of Dr Payal confronting her husband than of her own injury.
“It made me feel helpless. I didn’t know what to do,” says Dr Payal. “The academic in me reached out for some information, to better train and educate myself, and I found that this was a real area of need for further education for doctors. In fact, it was one of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Family Violence. So, I decided to advocate to raise awareness and skills amongst my workforce so victims can be supported better by the system.”
Her reaction to and action in this situation highlight how Dr Payal is living the values she hopes to pass on to her daughter.
I wonder what she finds most challenging about being a parent and her answer is one we can all relate to: “Being present and being present: Sometimes, mental and physical exhaustion . . . make it difficult to shut off from your devices such as the phone and computer at home and even if you are physically present, you are not mentally listening.” But the reward she says is “in those moments of being mentally present and especially completely random moments where you are not trying to do anything . . . just being present, that you make the most rewarding connections.”