Working together to make a difference

20 April 2020

Like all of us, the COVID-19 pandemic threw Dr Sarah Hanieh’s work plans upside down.

Shortly after she started at RANZCOG as the new Executive Director, Women’s Health & Engagement, the College moved to working-from-home arrangements.

“Face to face human interactions are so important. I’m glad I had at least a month working at RANZCOG so that I could develop an initial connection, bond and friendship with many staff members, before we had to leave the office environment,” Dr Hanieh says.

“I think this made it easier to transition to virtual meetings, however I do miss the spontaneous, fun interactions that happen in the office that are much harder to achieve online. I also miss my daily walks to and from the office through the Botannical gardens and other beautiful parks, it was a wonderful way to start the day.

“The last couple of months have been a steep learning curve but I have learnt so much-particularly about crisis management; what makes a good leader; and the importance of collaborative teamwork. I feel privileged to have been at RANZCOG during this time and to watch how the College has become a respected voice and leader during this crisis.”

A passion for maternal and child health

As a trained as a paediatrician (specialising in paediatric infectious diseases), Dr Hanieh has spent time working as a doctor in wide range of different settings from the metropolis’ of Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney, to Darwin, Alice Springs, Ethiopia, Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and remote Indigenous communities in Australia.

“I found so much, and learnt so much from all of these diverse experiences, and I think this is best summed up by a quote from one of my favourite authors (Alexander Solzhenitsyn- Cancer Ward)- ‘Man has everything he needs, in every corner of the world………….he only needs to know where to look’,” she says.

“As a result of these clinical experiences I became very interested in the science behind the diseases I had seen and treated, and decided to move into research to complete my PhD in maternal and child health, followed by four years of post-doctoral research at the University of Melbourne. I am always striving to challenge myself.

“I don’t like staying in my comfort zone for too long, and at that point I felt that I needed a new challenge to grow more as a leader and develop my ability for strategic thinking, but still within the realm of maternal and child health. This is what led me to apply for the position at RANZCOG.”

An advocate for women’s health

Dr Hanieh says as  Executive Director of Women’s Health and Engagement at RANZCOG she wants to ensure the College is the leading voice for Women’s Health “and the place that members come to first for information”.

“I think it’s important to garner resources from many different places, but I don’t think we should be dependent on overseas resources to be the major guide for Australian practices. RANZCOG can be, and should be, the leading source of information for Australia with regard to obstetrics and gynaecology,” she says.

“I also think it’s important that the College continues to be an advocate for ‘women’s health’ in its entirety, not just within the confines of the classic textbook definitions. This is particularly important for our more vulnerable populations within Australia, who may not have the loudest voice.

“Finally, I want members to feel that this is a College that they are proud to be a member of, that they feel an important part of, and that continues to grow, develop and innovate. A College that doesn’t follow behind, but leads along its own pathway.”

Championing women, fixing the unjust

During her time at the College staff have come to learn about Dr Hanieh and her experiences. In February, she was part of a panel discussion as the College marked International Women's Day, speaking about gender equality. Watch her speech.  In 2018, Dr Hanieh was selected to take part in the largest all woman expedition to Antarctica as part of a leadership, strategic and science initiative for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEMM). Watch Dr Hanieh discuss the three-week expedition.

What drives all of this work? “I think there are two reasons for this- firstly I think it stems back to something my Dad said to me when I was young,” Dr Hanieh says. “One day when I was about 12 years old doing my homework in my room, my dad came into my room and saw my blinds all ruffled up. I remember him walking over to them and saying- ‘Sarah- when you see something wrong- fix it.
“I know on the surface he was just talking about my blinds, but I also know that he was giving me a deeper message- when you see something wrong, don’t walk away, don’t ignore it-fix it. Those words have stayed with me through all of these years, and I think that is what drives me to want to change things when I see something I perceive as ‘wrong’ or unequal or unjust. I want to fix it.”

Dr Hanieh also pays tribute to her upbringing. “I am eternally grateful for where I am and what I have been given by my parents, particularly the sacrifices they made so that I could receive a good education and live a life of freedom and of choice,” she says. “I am a second generation refugee and I am well aware that my life could have turned out very differently. Everything I do is with that in mind, and I think these are the two reasons that fuel my passion for working with vulnerable populations, and why I want to be a champion of women’s leadership.”

Dr Hanieh during her expedition to Antarctica



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