In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first-ever woman in the United States to earn an MD degree. Fast forward to 2021. In many ways, women in medicine have come a long way. There are now more women entering the medical field than ever before. However, that hasn’t necessarily translated into an increase in female leadership in both academic and clinical medicine.

Women in medicine don’t achieve promotions or advancement to leadership positions at the same rate as their male peers. Such underrepresentation matters. Without a fair representation of women in senior roles divides may occur between those in leadership roles and clinicians.

The issues surrounding the relative absence of women leaders in academic and clinical medicine are complex. They remain unresolved, and need serious attention.

So, what’s holding women in medicine back from taking leadership positions?

Cultural and Social Stereotypes

Cultural stereotypes can be devaluing to women and often leads to fewer opportunities for women to advance their careers. These stereotypes describe men as assertive, logical, and strong and perceive women as kind, nurturing and tender. Traditional stereotypes that prefer a more ‘masculine style of leadership’ coupled with societal and organizational structures, patterns, and policies are implicitly and explicitly biased in favor of men.

Seeking Balance

Traditionally, women have assumed responsibilities for child-rearing, caregiving, and running a household. Female physicians still experience the strain of the dual role of physicians and homemakers.  This study found that women spent 8.5 hours more each week on parenting and domestic tasks than their male peers. This has not only affected their choice of specialty. It has also made them question their abilities to take on leadership roles or be in authoritative positions.

Maternal Wall

Women are often questioned about their efficiency once they become pregnant, take maternity leave, or adopt flexible work schedules. This denies them the opportunities to rise to advance their careers known as the ‘maternal wall’. The biased assumptions that a mother will be less committed to her job because of her chores at home often prevent women from being offered leadership positions.

System-wide Policies Disadvantage Women

Most institutions typically have insufficient policies and programs to support child-rearing, lactation, and caretaking. This makes it difficult for women to strike a balance between their personal and professional lives. These number of system-wide barriers undoubtedly contribute to women leaving medicine and therefore not attaining leadership roles.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is also common in medicine and more women are subjected to them than men. Such harassment includes inappropriate sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, sexist jokes or slurs, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. This has proven to worsen retention in their field of work/career hence, leaving lesser chances for career advancement.

Lack of Mentorship and Sponsorship

Mentorship is crucial in developing the next generation of leaders. However, women in academic medicine have more trouble finding mentors and sponsors than men. This is likely contributing to career disparities. Highly qualified women don’t receive independent grants and publications at the same rate as men. This continues to limit their career from further advancement.

What can we do?

Removing all of the barriers to women in medicine will require fundamental and long-lasting social changes. Norms must change for how people perceive the role of women within society. A person’s career opportunities should not be limited by their gender or sexual orientation.

By now we have understood this.

A more diverse workforce in medicine will deliver better patient care and improve the overall health care delivery system.

If health care leaders want to retain the growing contingent of women in medicine, they need to take their challenges into serious consideration, devise and implement pragmatic, evidence-based solutions to mitigate them.

  • Strong family-friendly policies like paid maternity leaves and parental leave policies can help. Supporting parents of all genders can ensure that physicians are not faced with a binary choice between career and family. This will also help retain women in medicine and academia.
  • Policies that support zero-tolerance for workplace sexual harassment and abuse need to be put in place.
  • We need to create programs that provide women with opportunities to pair with female mentors and improve networking opportunities. These formal networking programs and events can help women identify potential mentors whom they might not otherwise encounter. Organizations that extend grants need to consider more women as targets and facilitate sponsorship for them.

Initiatives at the individual, institutional and national levels will continue to be important in promoting diversity and inclusivity in leadership.

Female leadership is important because people at the top need to represent the population that they serve.

Women in the lead can transform perspectives and processes that allow for parity, inclusiveness, resilience, and sustainability. It will drive change, break down barriers, shatter the glass ceiling, and releases the constraint of choices available to women.

Gender parity in leadership is important because true progress cannot be achieved without a diversity of perspectives in leadership roles.

The Conversation

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