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How Women In Medicine Are Hurting Their Own Careers

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Consider this scenario: an email arrives, sent out to you and all your colleagues, describing a party that is coming up for your section, and a volunteer is needed to organize the event. Or perhaps the email is a request to serve on a committee for your section. It might even be an email needing someone to fill in for a shift that a colleague won't be able to staff. Think about who is the most likely of your colleagues to respond to those emails indicating a willingness to volunteer. 

Now, consider this: Is the person you thought about a man or a woman?

Research has suggested that women are more likely to volunteer for non-promotable tasks than men. These are tasks that are not likely to impact the performance assessments that determine whether an individual would be considered for a promotion. 

What is considered non-promotable work varies depending on your organization and department. For work to be promotable, it generally should align with the organization's mission and goals. For example, a physician who provides patient-centered clinical care and receives positive feedback from patients and colleagues is performing work that would be aligned with a hospital's goal of providing quality patient care. But if that physician decreases work on clinical care and instead helps onboard new clinicians, that physician might receive feedback about decreased clinical productivity at a performance assessment. The work should also be specific to your skills, rather than work that most individuals in an organization could perform. For example, many people could arrange a party for colleagues. However, publishing a research paper involves specific skills and demonstrates your expertise related to a topic. 

Women volunteering for non-promotable tasks is a potential contributing factor to the reasons that women physicians at academic medical centers are less likely to be promoted to associate or full professor, according to an NEJM study. This paper indicates that, as of 2014, 38% of full-time medical school faculty members were women physicians, but only 21% of full professors were women physicians. While there are many contributing factors to the differences in promotion, women working less on tasks that contribute to promotion might be an impact factor.

It’s worth nothing that though it might not directly benefit the individuals who volunteer, non-promotable work might be important for the functioning of an organization. For example, assisting with onboarding a new colleague to your section is important for an organization, even though this work might not be associated with direct benefits for the volunteer. But as previously indicated, volunteering for non-promotable tasks could even have a negative impact on a person's opportunity for promotion. The work that is invested into organizing a party could have been spent on an activity such as preparing a lecture for grand rounds that would be reflected in a performance assessment. However, you might enjoy volunteering for activities like organizing a party for colleagues. In that scenario, it might be helpful to email your supervisor and express the reason that you’re excited for picking up certain volunteer work to make your supervisor recognize the skills that you’re using for that work and perhaps to be selected for other opportunities. For example, a sample email could be: “I wanted to share some work that I recently did for our section. I was excited to volunteer to organize the party for our new colleagues that were onboarding for our section. This was an opportunity to make use of my organizational and delegation skills, as well as using limited funding to make an event that people really enjoyed. I wanted to share this with you since the skills used to make this party a success could also be easily applied to other work, and I would be very interested in hearing about any opportunities in our section where I could apply my skills to more academic work.”

Now that we’ve recognized that there is work that is important to an organization but could be considered as non-promotable tasks, and that these tasks are disproportionately taken on by women, what can we do? There are a few suggestions for improvement. From an individual's perspective, women might benefit from being aware that research suggests that women are more likely to volunteer than men for work. When an emailed request is sent, women should be prepared to not take on such tasks when asked, or not accept when “voluntold.” For example, a sample response could be: “Thank you for reaching out to me regarding this opportunity. However, I don’t think that I currently have availability to pick up this project. I would appreciate you reaching out with more opportunities later, since I would like to pick up more projects when I’m more available.” To help work be distributed more equally, the response could also be an opportunity to suggest that the person asking reach out to men as well. You could add the following to the above response: “Have you considered asking (men in the group)? They might be looking for projects to help with.”

From an organization's perspective, work could be distributed in a way that is more equitable for all individuals involved. For example, a schedule could be made that distributes such tasks to all employees so that everyone contributes. An organization could also send out an email describing the research mentioned above to help employees recognize that women volunteering more than men is a problem that is ongoing in many fields, including medicine. When employees recognize that a problem is occurring, men might be more likely to volunteer when they feel that they are contributing to a solution that benefits their colleagues. In addition, if work is not likely to be included in a performance assessment but is important to an organization, the individual who volunteers could be compensated for that work. For work that is not compensated but is important to the organization, there could be more done to make sure that work is incorporated into an employee’s performance assessment. In that scenario, work that previously seemed non-promotable might now become more significant for the promotion process. For example, prior to a performance review, an organization could send an email such as this to an employee: “We recognize that there are volunteer opportunities that might not be included in a standard performance assessment, and we would like to hear about your non-clinical or -academic work over the past academic year to include in your assessment.” That would provide employees with an opportunity to share the projects that they have been part of. 

As you volunteer for tasks at your organization, consider what work is more likely to contribute to promotion for you. For example, many academic medical centers are interested in clinical performance and professional contributions when promotions are considered. Considerations include demonstrated consideration of high-quality care, clinical productivity, participation in development of programs, teaching assessment, and publications. It might be helpful to email your supervisor before volunteer opportunities even become available to express your interest in picking up work that aligns with your organization’s goals. For example, a sample email could be: “I really enjoy working in our section. I’ve heard of several interesting research projects that my colleagues are working on, and I want to get involved when there is an opportunity. Do you have time to meet to discuss possible projects?” When you do volunteer for work that might not contribute to promotion, let your supervisor know how you’re applying your skills to the volunteer work that you do. There may be a way to turn your project into a promotion.

What are your thoughts on volunteering at work? Share in the comments.

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