Celebrating Inspiring Canadian Women Physicians

August 16, 2021 | Diane Amato


The annual CWIM Inspiring Woman Physician Award acknowledges the work of dedicated, skilled, trailblazing women physicians in Canada.

It celebrates women who practice and lead with compassion, advocate for the rights of patients and raise their voices for change. Here are this year winners' stories.

Canadian Women in Medicine (CWIM) was founded to connect and support female physicians in a way that allows them to thrive in both their personal and professional lives. This year, their CWIM Inspiring Woman Physician Award honoured four outstanding women in medicine and we were able to speak to three of them to know about their stories, their inspirations and their advice for the next generation of female physicians.

Dr. Clover Hemans - "To Speak Up and Influence Change"

Dr. Clover Hemans is a Jamaican nurse turned doctor who has been a primary care physician in Ontario for the last 25 years. A passionate advocate for patient rights and gender parity, equity and diversity, Dr. Hemans has acquired an impressive set of skills and experience to make an impact in her field. She holds a Master's certificate in physician leadership, a Master's degree in Quality Improvement and Patient Safety and key leadership positions that have given her a platform for driving change — she is past-president of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada and co-chair of the Ontario Medical Association's OMA Women.

Q: You hold multiple degrees and leadership positions. What has driven you?

Dr. Hemans: I realized at one point that I didn't have a plan — I was just going day-by-day and wasn't advancing anywhere. There were some medical politics that were being played out by one of our governments, which I thought was nonsense. Instead of complaining, I thought I would do something about it. I decided to focus on leadership — I did a year-long program called the Physician Leadership Development Program — and joined the OMA, because that's the association that speaks on our behalf in the province. I took on the leadership positions that I did to influence change and get voices heard that aren't always heard.

Q: You speak up for the things that matter and have a powerful voice. Have you been met with resistance along the way?

Dr. Hemans: People don't like talking about things that are uncomfortable. I am known as a disruptor and someone who speaks up for the voices that aren't heard. I point out issues or raise uncomfortable questions and have in the past been labeled as “a problem." But this is what leaders do — that's the whole point, to use your position to speak up and influence change. I believe to influence change, you've got to make yourself visible and undeniable.

Q: Have you seen shifts in equality and inclusion during your career?

Dr. Hemans: Overall, there is more awareness of the fact that there is inequality — that you're still penalized as a woman. It is getting better, but there is still a gender pay gap. An argument I hear a lot is that there isn't a pay gap, because you just go with the fee schedule… but it's not about doing a certain amount of work for a certain amount of dollars. It's a matter of how you get work, who sends you the work, what work you do on the side. Also, when you enter certain specialties, women don't have mentors or sponsors. Getting women in medicine isn't the problem — there are actually more women than men entering medical school. But when you look at positions of leadership, you look around and don't see many women. And I am a black woman — if you look for black women in leadership positions, it will be a hard look. This where the change is needed.

Q: What advice would you give to young women entering medicine?

Dr. Hemans: I would say three things:

A goal without a plan is just a wish. Physicians are extraordinarily good at making goals, but plans get tough for women because biologically we're the ones that have families, which takes us off a trajectory for a while. It's important to touch base with ourselves, figure out what we want in terms of family and career and how we can get there.

Kindness is important. Be kind to your friends and family, but don't be a sheep that just follows the status quo.

Step out of your comfort zone, because that's when you learn. Find a group of people where you can have conversations that put you either outside of your comfort zone or in a place where you need to think outside of your usual mindset.

Dr. Fiona Mattatall - "Do Not Lose Yourself in Your Roles"

Dr. Fiona Mattatall is an obstetrician-gynaecologist from Alberta and gynaecologist for transgender women. An outspoken critic of the government, she is an advocate for people who traditionally have less of a voice. She has become influential and uses her platform for good, calling out politicians for bad behaviour and advocating for all women's health.

Q: You are an advocate for transgender health. How did you come to make transgender gynecology part of your practice?

Dr. Mattatall: I have chosen to focus on transgender health for over a decade. It should be part of every doctor's practice but it's not something that my generation learned in medical school or my residency training — it's something that I've come to because of patients who I've cared for. I realized I wasn't skilled in caring for that patient population, so I sought out extra training and a community of other healthcare providers locally in Calgary. We have a loose network of physicians, social workers and nurses who focus on care and advocate for care for that community. Part of our work is realizing that none of us have this training, so we have been working on integrating transgender health into the medical school curriculum here in Calgary.

Q: Your specialty attracts a lot of female physicians, but do you feel there are still gender inequalities in medicine?

Dr. Mattatall: I am in a unique position because in obstetrics and gynaecology there has been a huge shift — from a male-dominated profession to 90 per cent of new graduates are female. In my field, there isn't an issue with being a woman, although there are gender gaps when it comes to senior leadership. I am mindful of making sure that when we're thinking about gender it can go the other way — and we have to make sure that we are being equitable to all genders because men can face similar issues, especially in a female-dominated area like mine. Outside of my specialty I still see inequities. I have sat in meetings where I was the only female physician in the room and the only one referred to by their first name. Other groups face challenges too, and there are inequities in terms of race and sexuality. We have to just keep trying to make it better for the next generation.

Q: You are very vocal on social media. What made you start using that platform to speak out?

Dr. Mattatall: I have used Twitter as a platform for a few things. One is correcting misinformation when it comes to areas of healthcare that I'm an expert in. I also use it for advocacy — when I see reproductive rights being challenged — and in our province of Alberta there have been a few challenges to reproductive health rights and LGBTQ rights — I use that platform to bring awareness to let people know that if certain bills are put forward they would limit access to birth control, for example. I also throw in a lot of light content and humour because otherwise, it's all doom and gloom.

Q: What advice would you give to new or prospective physicians as they start out in their careers?

Dr. Mattatall: One thing that I was not taught but is really important to do is to not lose yourself in your roles — as a physician, partner or mum. You have to carve out time for yourself and remember who you are at your core and not lose yourself in your career.

Dr. Suzanne Rutherford - "Making Yourself a Priority Does Not Make You Selfish"

Dr. Suzanne Rutherford is a family doctor, Chief of Family Medicine at Kemptville District Hospital, and palliative care and Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) provider. She has also set up and run both COVID-19 assessment and vaccination centres in Kemptville, working to stop the spread of the virus. In addition, she is a business owner who has changed the lives of female physicians and mothers through the Mom's 1st Movement and Canadian Women Physician Fitness Challenge, which she established in partnership with her personal trainer.

Q: You already had a busy career before COVID hit – and then you began supporting testing and vaccination. How did that come about?

Dr. Rutherford: When COVID hit I obviously wanted to contribute in any way I could. I started working at some of the assessment centres in Ottawa, taking shifts and doing my part. Then there was a clear need for an assessment centre in our community, so I along with the CEO of my hospital took it under our wing and set up the North Medical Corporate Assessment Centre. When Public Health needed a mass vaccination centre, I was a natural person to lead that. We run that four days a week and vaccinate approximately 800 people a day.

Q: How did the Moms 1st Movement and Canadian Women Physician Fitness Challenge come about?

Dr. Rutherford: I have always had a real interest in fitness and nutrition. I found myself struggling with my chaotic schedule and shift work to find a gym and a program that fit into my schedule. So I began working with a trainer who developed a program for me via an app that I could do anywhere and anytime — I could do it from a gym or from my call room at the hospital. It was completely life-changing for me and my stress levels plummeted once I was committing to regular fitness again. I was on the cusp of burnout and this saved me. I told my trainer that there would be so many female physicians who are busy trying to be moms and doctors and not taking care of themselves that would benefit from this. So we decided to put it out in a Facebook group — three and a half years later there are 500 of us who have been training together through the Canadian Women Physician Fitness Challenge. The program is broken into 12-week challenges that involve a choice of workouts and developing a better relationship with food. We then had a lot of other women approaching us who weren't doctors asking how they could get in, so we put the same program together for working moms, which is the Mom's 1st Movement.

Q: Do you feel that female physicians face greater challenges in terms of fitting in self-care compared to your male colleagues?

Dr. Rutherford: 100 per cent. We're raised with the expectation that we're supposed to be constantly juggling balls — and our own 'self-care ball' is the one that we're never encouraged to pick up or is the first one we always seem willing to drop. Yet it's the most important part because if we're not well, we can't do the rest. One of the most valuable parts of our program is reiterating and coaching how making yourself a priority does not make you selfish.

Q: What did winning the CWIM Inspiring Woman Physician Award mean to you?

Dr. Rutherford: It honestly meant everything. I have so many incredible female colleagues in this country doing amazing things that I was blown away. Since then, I've been flooded with messages from my colleagues about how I've changed their life for the better. It's not only winning the award, it's having a moment to stop and reflect on the impact that I've had – it gave me a moment in my life that I will always appreciate and cherish.

This article originally appeared on the RBC Healthcare - Advice & Learning