#WomenofUP: ‘Women need to have the confidence to say, “My voice will be heard”’– Prof Fathima Paruk

Posted on August 06, 2021

Professor Fathima Paruk’s potential has always shone. Before she had even qualified as a medical doctor from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, one of her professors included her in the Ford Foundation student research programme and her study was published in the South African Medical Journal.

“This was very rare back then, and I only understood this achievement much later,” she said. “Nonetheless, it served as an impetus for me to do research in the future.”

Today, Prof Paruk is internationally respected, and serves as the Clinical and Academic Head of the Department of Critical Care at Steve Biko Academic Hospital and the University of Pretoria (UP).

She is responsible for all the intensive care units (ICUs), and specifically to ensure that the department functions effectively in terms of its services, academic training and research. In that capacity, she engages with multidisciplinary professionals including surgeons, physicians, obstetricians, nurses, dieticians, physiotherapists and clinical technologists.

With the coronavirus pandemic, her role in critical care has intensified, as have her research outputs. As a member of the African COVID-19 Critical Care Outcomes Study writing committee, she contributed to the multi-country report ‘African, multi-centre evaluation of COVID-19 patients in high-care or ICUs’,  published in The Lancet in May.

Prof Paruk is Honorary Secretary of the Critical Care Society of Southern Africa (CCSSA). She is also a member of both the Human Research Ethics Committee at the University of the Witwatersrand, and the Medical and Dental Board of the Health Professions Council of South Africa.

Her career is dotted with firsts: the first obstetric intensivist in South Africa, the first person from Africa to win the Canadian Young Investigator Award from the International Society for the Study of Hypertension in Pregnancy in 2002 and, later next month, she will become the first female president of the CCSSA.

Prof Paruk’s interest in critical care arose from her curiosity. After specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology, she noted how many patients were ending up in ICU because they did not have access to antenatal care at the time. She asked her head of department if she could spend some time in ICU, and “got hooked”, she said.

Initially there was no opportunity to specialise in critical care in South Africa. When one did arise, it required her to relocate to Gauteng. Her PhD on the subject focused on critically ill obstetric patients, but her subsequent research interests include the use of novel technologies in ICUs.

The journey to her present position as an associate professor has seen Prof Paruk encounter the same gender disparity her female colleagues experience globally. She cites many examples of how people cannot see beyond gender, such as a male doctor being called “doctor”, while a female doctor is often addressed by just her first name. 

“It’s society – it doesn’t always place women on the same level as men,” she said. “I remember as an intern doctor, I once introduced myself to a patient who later responded, ‘Thank you, Sister.’ Society reinforces this subordination of women. As such, women need to have the confidence to overcome such barriers when the need arises and to be able to say: ‘My voice will be heard.’”

Prof Paruk used some of her personal experiences to illustrate the gender leadership gap in a presentation she made at a critical care conference held in Brussels last year.

“Leaders serve communities – leadership should represent the community being served,” she said in her lecture, noting that despite enabling structures such as South Africa’s Employment Equity Act (1998) and transformation policies in higher education institutions, disparities still exist.

Female undergraduates predominate at most South African medical universities, yet this is not always reflected at management level. “This is something that warrants significant attention,” Prof Paruk said. “For women globally, it’s a trying path. You do need to prove yourself, to articulate such that you are heard. If you don't, you can be easily marginalised.”

She is appreciative that when she arrived at UP six years ago, she was offered a leadership course at its business school, the Gordon Institute of Business Science. “Such courses are fantastic and really help cultivate one’s potential.”

Prof Paruk acknowledges her own input of hard work and sacrifice but believes “a large part of where I am today can be attributed to the people I met, and had the privilege to work with”. Now she is driven to do the same for others.

Becoming a doctor was an ideal way to combine her natural curiosity and love for science with helping people. Today this fervour extends to her students. “Nothing gives me greater joy than to see my students thrive. Many of them have become leaders in their own right, and this further fuels my passion. I really would like to see that I've contributed to the future leadership in my profession. That for me is very important.”

- Author Department of Institutional Advancement

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