When Dr Barbara Burge (Payne, 1950) graduated from Brisbane Girls Grammar School with the ambition of pursuing a career in medicine, she knew the male-dominated industry would present challenges.
Today, Barbara believes there is nothing holding women back from STEM and realising their dreams once they finish secondary school. Currently, at Girls Grammar, more than 90 per cent of girls in Years 11 and 12 are studying a science, with 63 per cent taking two or more sciences. But, in the 1950s, Barbara had to fight for a seat at the table, and that seat was in the front row of the lecture hall, in a room of 10 women compared to 100 men.
‘There were times as a young resident when I was called down to the emergency department and it was quite common for them to think I was one of the nurses,’ she said.
‘I don’t believe that assumption happens anymore.
‘I don’t think there is anything holding women back from studying medicine. Certainly, there are just as many women in medicine as there are men. There are perhaps fewer women who decide to specialise because it takes such a long time to get there, and by that time they might want to have a family and children.’
At School, Barbara was passionate about Humanities and particularly loved learning English and History. But, ultimately, she gravitated towards medical science and moved to Melbourne to become a General Practitioner. She graduated in 1956 and obtained the Fellowship of the College of General Practitioners, Royal Australian College of General Practitioners in 1974, and then, in 2003 at the age of 71, completed a Masters in GP Psychiatry.
It was inside the white picket fence of Girls Grammar where she gained the courage, determination, and the confidence, she needed to pursue a meaningful, fulfilling career.
‘I think one of the things that Grammar does so well is that they encourage,’ she said.
‘They encourage girls that they can do whatever they want if they have enough passion for it, they can pursue their dream to do things that, in the past, may not have been easy to do. Anything is an option if you want it enough.’
Her love of education only deepened throughout her career, and she shared her knowledge, experience, and challenges with budding doctors at Melbourne University, where she tutored part-time for a subject called Ethical Practice.
‘I had a group of medical students who were mid-way through their degree, and it was a subject that I loved, and I think, interestingly, they loved it too because I had a lot of great stories to tell them which always helps in teaching and learning,’ she said. Having established a successful career in general practice since the mid-1970s, the stories were plentiful. Barbara also believes that it was an advantage to be a female GP, as from the start of her time in practice, she found patients (male and female) appreciated having a doctor who could demonstrate empathy and compassion as well as provide female patients the opportunity to discuss sensitive healthcare matters that they could relate to.
After an accomplished career, Barbara is retired and living in Melbourne, enjoying the company of friends and family—including her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She often reflects on her time at Girls Grammar, including then Head Mistress, Miss Lilley, and her little dog, and being part of the Athletics team shouting the School war cry—which she still remembers the words to.