7 Women Leaders Share Lessons They Wish They Learned in Med School

Illustration by Jennifer Bogartz

We mentor and sponsor a lot of physicians, and so often our advice to them is not what we did ourselves. Why? Because when we were younger, we didn’t know what we do now. In medicine, the saying “the mind doesn’t know what the eyes haven’t seen” applies to more than clinical issues.

Ask for what you deserve

Studies show large compensation gaps for women physicians across specialties, including those published by Doximity and Medscape. A recent article in ACS Surgery News highlighted the troubling issue of salary gaps that persist even after adjustment for years of experience and publication history. Although we strongly believe that institutional leaders, regardless of gender, have a moral and ethical obligation to address compensation gaps from their perch at the top, here are some things you can do:

  1. Ask for what you deserve. There are many good books on negotiation such as Ask For It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want.
  2. Research the available benchmarks for compensation comparisons (e.g., MGMA, AMGA, AAMC, Sullivan, Cotter and Associates). Online resources may help you to look up the salaries of individuals, such as physicians who work for the federal government or state government.
  3. Learn about the advocacy for fair compensation at the American Medical Association and other societies. More help and resources are on the way!

Seek out good mentors and sponsors

A recent blog titled Which is Better: Mentorship or Sponsorship? explains these terms and highlights that women in medicine often do not receive high-quality mentoring and lack sponsorship. Although definitions for mentorship and sponsorship may vary, it is vitally important to seek out those who are willing and able to lift you up. Here are a few tips:

  1. Consider what you want to do with your career and who may be able to help you get there.
  2. Recognize that you will likely benefit from having multiple mentors and sponsors at various career stages to achieve different goals.
  3. Return the favor: Ask mentors or sponsors how you can assist in achieving their career goals, and bring up the next generation by being a mentor and sponsor yourself.

Lean in and raise your hand

If you expect someone to notice your unique talents and offer up an opportunity, you may be waiting a long time, especially as a woman. Invitations to speak at national meetings, join committees, be considered for promotions or awards and other opportunities are much more likely to come your way if you let people know that you are interested and available. Now is a great time to let them know, because many leaders are aware of the recent studies showing that women in medicine are underrepresented as speakers for Grand Rounds and not equitably included in medical societies or as authors of perspective articles in journals. In a first of its kind report, the Association of Academic Physiatrists recently published their results analyzing the inclusion of women physicians on a list of medical society metrics. We hope that many other medical societies will soon follow their lead and transparently publish results. Here are some tips:

  1. Email medical society conference organizers or colleagues who are tasked with booking Grand Rounds speakers to express your interest and availability.
  2. Volunteer for a committee at your institution or in a professional society that is aligned with your interests and will support your career advancement (avoid committee work that is mostly “housekeeping” — if you are not sure if it is the right committee role for you, ask a mentor!).
  3. Reach out to your mentors, sponsors, program director or department chair and ask for invitations to write a paper, speak, become a task force member, etc.

Strategically expand your professional networks

We all have professional networks — colleagues and organizations we are connected to. Despite their value, the people who often benefit the most (e.g., trainees, early career physicians, women and minorities) might be hesitant to network — perhaps because they are unsure of the value, how to proceed, fear rejection or are simply too busy. No matter how comfortable you feel with networking, this is a skill that improves with practice. Spend your time wisely and glean insights by observing those who network well. Remember for your network to thrive, you must use it. Here are some ways to expand your networks:

  1. Join your state medical society or a national medical society such as the American Medical Women’s Association. Try to attend at least one live professional conference a year. If that is not possible, take advantage of professional development and social events organized by your practice, hospital or other organization.
  2. Tap into virtual communities. A recent report published in the New England Journal of Medicine titled Social Media and Advancement of Women Physicians explains the many benefits (and some risks) of joining online communities. Need a place to start? Use Twitter to expand your network beyond normal social boundaries. Many medical societies engage with membership and provide avenues to virtually attend conferences or journal clubs. Using hashtags such as #WomenInMedicine, #ILookLikeASurgeon and #GirlMedTwitter will help to connect you.
  3. Go meet the professor! Did you attend a fantastic Grand Rounds or other lecture? Walk up to the podium afterward and thank the speaker while sharing your interest in the topic. Ask to reconnect and learn more in person or via phone, social media or email. This can both expand your network and options for mentorship and sponsorship.

Start a family on a timeline that is best for you

Last, but not least, consider the best time for you to start a family. Women physicians often wait for the “ideal time” only to find out later that the perfect time never arrives. For example, when still in training, women may worry about the impact that a maternity leave will have on their program and peers — fears that are not unreasonable given the literature on peer evaluations for women who get pregnant during residency. Women may be concerned they will be less actively recruited if it is known they are planning to start a family. A study by Stentz et al randomly sampled women physicians who had completed medical school more than a decade prior in order to assess issues of fertility and childbearing. The average age of first pregnancy was 30.4 years, with 24.1% of respondents diagnosed with infertility (average age at diagnosis was 33.7 years) — nearly 30% reporting low ovarian reserve as the etiology. Although slightly over half of respondents would not have done anything differently when faced with this knowledge, 28.6% of the women reported they would have attempted conception sooner, 17.1% would have selected a different specialty, and 7.0% would have undergone cryopreservation. Regardless of where you are in training or career, the ideal time to start a family should be based on your desire to do so rather than a time that is convenient for others. Here are a few things to consider:

1. Decide when it is the right time for you (and your partner) to start a family.

2. Be familiar with relevant maternity leave policies and benefits, including the length of paid leave and the maximum allowable time off.

3. Know in advance the issues you may face by taking time off (e.g., loss of compensation, graduation requirements, make up call).

Although there are many things we could have added to this list, we aimed to address things that are “top of mind” for a lot of women in medicine. We hope that you will share this with your virtual networks and join us in our efforts to support all women — and everyone else — in medicine!

Philomena Asante, MD, MPH is the Medical Director at Northeastern University Health Services and leads the group Diva Docs Boston; Kelly Cawcutt, MD, MS is an infectious diseases and critical care physician and is an expert on faculty development; Meridith Englander, MD is an interventional radiologist and past chair of Women in Interventional Radiology; Lillian Erdahl, MD is an Assistant Professor of Surgery breast surgical oncologist and general surgeon at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics who is an expert in medical education; Amy Oxentenko, MD is Program Director and Associate Chair for the Department of Medicine at Mayo Clinic and is a national leader in education, Diane Radford, MD is a breast surgical oncologist at Cleveland Clinic and Director of the Breast Program at Cleveland Clinic Hillcrest Hospital; Julie Silver, MD is an Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School and directs the Harvard CME course Career Advancement and Leadership Skills for Women in Healthcare. Follow them on Twitter: @divadocsbos @philoasanteMD @KellyCawcuttMD @meridity1 @LillianErdahlMD @DianeRadfordMD @JulieSilverMD.

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