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She Was Told She Could Lead From Behind as a Woman in Medicine. It Just Wasn’t True

Op-Med is a collection of original articles contributed by Doximity members.

It started with an interest in biology. At the time a high school student fascinated by living organisms, Dr. Christine M. Albert watched her mother return to nursing school to pursue a career in medicine. Her mother’s dedication to the field deepened Dr. Albert’s enthusiasm and laid the groundwork for her path to becoming a physician-scientist.

Dr. Albert has since taken on the role of founding chair of cardiology in the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and is the immediate past president of the Heart Rhythm Society. But serving in a leadership position never crossed her mind at the outset. It was not until well into her career that she considered it a real possibility.

“I was encouraged to apply for a chief of cardiology position, when I really had no idea that that would even be in my future, by someone whom I respected greatly,” Dr. Albert told Doximity. “So I looked at the position because I had so much respect for that person. And I think it made me realize, ‘Hey, I could do this.’”

Among hundreds of cardiology departments across the U.S., a very small percentage of department chairs are women. Underrepresentation of women in cardiology, particularly as  chief, “signals that there’s either some degree of bias perhaps in achieving those positions, or a prevailing view of the position that you don't necessarily view in a woman,” Dr. Albert said. “I didn't view myself in that position until 14 years ago … and that took many years.”

In Dr. Albert’s case, her transition to leadership can be attributed to the support of many colleagues and mentors she worked alongside throughout her career. Having worked in a wide range of clinical and research settings — including electrophysiology at Massachusetts General Hospital and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health — Dr. Albert gleaned lessons from many people from different departments and career stages. 

She refers to this group as her “fabric of mentors.” It was a physician mentor who helped her recognize her ability to solve problems as a leader; it was a research mentor who supported her with the data critical for her early publications; and it was a sponsor who showed her the blueprint for advocating for women in cardiac electrophysiology. There were even multiple instances in which a fellow she had trained returned several years later to present her with a growth opportunity.

“One of the highlights of my career is being able to collaborate with … and learn from others,” Dr. Albert said. “You never know who you are going to interact with, who will then help to advance your career. So always treat your colleagues and your mentors and your sponsors with a lot of respect. And I’ve found that people do the same.”

Reflecting on the impact that so many mentors had on her, she was motivated to take on a similar role in order to pay it forward. Many of her mentees have published important cardiology research papers. “I always push them to do the best work that they can,” she said. “I try to give them the spotlight, inviting them to be a corresponding author and first author.”

Beyond generosity with research, Dr. Albert has found it important to help early career women cardiologists and electrophysiologists identify and land opportunities. While serving on program committees at her previous posts, she would tap up-and-coming physicians for leadership roles. “You’d be surprised how much difference it makes in a younger woman’s career to be on the podium, talking about something they’re developing an expertise in,” Dr. Albert said. And as department chair, she has pushed herself to try to foster everyone’s career. “The way I approach that is to provide some gasoline for the fire. They’ve got the talent, I just try to provide resources, guidance, and space.”

Dr. Albert also cites a good mindset as the key to becoming a great leader. She credits the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine course for women in health care with giving her a solid foundation, recommending it to her mentees to help them develop skills to navigate leadership challenges. 

“A lot of it is really being willing to show up, do the work, and be enthusiastic,” she said. “You’d be surprised by how many people you meet and how many might eventually sponsor you.”

No matter how positive of a mindset one adopts, however, there are always setbacks. Dr. Albert cautioned, “These aren't the bumps in the road; this is the road. And so persistence is really important.” She has also learned the value of accepting and incorporating feedback: “If there is a real roadblock and you can't go in that one direction, then you don't say ‘no’ — you say ‘not now,’ or you take a different path. But don't be bitter, because this is the road.”

Another lesson in leadership Dr. Albert emphasized is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Leaders should never lose sight of the strengths of the people around them, she said. “It's not necessarily what you do alone. It's what your whole group does together. That's what you need to take pride in.”

As much as she has received from her mentors, Dr. Albert has appreciated the opportunity to share her learnings with the next generation. She explained that serving as a mentor for other physicians and scientists has been deeply rewarding: “There really is no better joy than watching somebody that you trained become a star. And just knowing that you had a little part of that … it does feel really good.”

Illustration by Jennifer Bogartz

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