Levelling the playing field
Torn between pursuing medicine or sports as a teenager, Dr Phatho Zondi finally found the path she’d been looking for after hearing a radio station interview with Prof Tim Noakes.
‘I’ve always been fascinated by the human body, so I knew quite early on that I wanted to study medicine. On the other hand, I’ve also always loved all kinds of sport and I’ve participated in at least three of them since the age of
six. I grew up in an active family where everyone – Baba, Mama, bhuti and sisi – was athletic in their own right, so sports medicine was a natural fit for me. But I only learnt about the actual discipline quite late in high school. As soon as I became aware that it was a career choice, I knew that was the path I wanted to follow,’ explains Phatho.
She went on to do her MB ChB at the University of Cape Town, after which she obtained a sports medicine degree at the University of Pretoria. ‘I started my career working as a team doctor in rugby at a time when there weren’t many women – and certainly no black ones – in the sports science and medical fields of rugby. So the challenges I experienced resulted from both gender and racial prejudice.
There were times when I wasn’t “invited to the table” – or, if I was included in a meeting, I wasn’t given a chance to speak.
At first, people didn’t quite know where to place me within the team – manager, administrator, assistant, or travelling nurse – simply because it was beyond their imagination that a woman could possibly be the doctor of a rugby team, let alone be any good at it. I’ve had many experiences of being undermined and having my clinical input completely disregarded.’
Such instances still occur, says Phatho, and the prejudice comes from all directions – but she’s grown a thick skin and has taught herself not to be discouraged by negativity or scorn. ‘What’s helped me a lot is remaining authentic, focusing on my goals, working hard and surrounding myself with people who help me filter the feedback (both
positive and negative) so that I can use it to grow and improve myself. I do feel, though, that the stereotypes faced by
a woman trying to succeed in sports medicine are probably no different from those women face in any other male-dominated industry. People assume you don’t know enough about the field and that your performance and commitment will change once you’ve had children. In all industries, however, there are also men who are incredibly supportive of change. We need to be encouraged by them.’
On a personal level, Phatho says physical activity and good nutrition are definitely priorities for her and she believes it’s essential to strike a good balance between the two for optimum quality of life. ‘I exercise five or six times a week and mostly train alone, because that’s my “me time” when I can collect my thoughts and recalibrate. My husband and I also encourage our two daughters [aged four and one] to participate in regular physical activity while they’re playing. We also do this as a family, going for picnics or walks to places where they can run around or ride their bikes, playing catch or soccer. At their ages, it’s also easy to positively influence their diets, so I make sure their meals are balanced, with a fair amount of fruit and vegetables, and I limit the amount of sugar they consume.’ However, Phatho isn’t obsessive about this. ‘I want my children to have a comfortable relationship with food, understanding the importance of a healthy, balanced diet, but also able to enjoy a variety of foods and treats without guilt.’
Although there are still very few women in sports medicine and exercise science locally and globally, more of them are beginning to enter these fields. ‘It’s important to acknowledge all the trailblazers and advocates of inclusivity who paved the way for this – men and women alike. Despite the various challenges I face, I feel privileged and extremely fulfilled by my job and I’m very grateful to my family, friends and mentors who’ve held my hand and pulled me up so that I could stay in the game.
‘I also feel a deep sense of obligation to pay it forward and bring other women with me as I continue on this journey. I’m invested in creating a world where you don’t need to be lucky to succeed and in which my daughters and other young girls can thrive, despite their gender or skin colour.’
COMPILED BY NOLWAZI DHLAMINI PHOTOS