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To Close the Gender Gap in Health Care, We Must Empower Through Our Collective Voice

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"Empower. Educate. Elevate." Those are the words that come to mind as I reflect on my experience at the recent virtual Women in Medicine Summit. Though virtual conferences can be more accessible, cost-effective, and convenient, they also pose challenges in creating connections for participants. Through deliberate planning, Summit organizer Dr. Shikha Jain has masterfully created a space for empowering women with skills necessary to succeed- elevating through education- and created intentional space for connections.

Connections began at the pre-conference mentoring sessions which made use of break out rooms which one of my colleagues remarked was "Hands down the best mentorship session I've attended at a conference!" The virtual networking zoom event at the end of day one was informal, fun, and made the conference feel more personal. During the sessions, presenters and student volunteers ensured that the chats were robust, engaging participants across their screens. 

Connections are one important component to attending conferences, but the true impact comes from the inspirational speakers who individually presented various insightful talks that collectively came together to drive home the theme of the conference, which was to encourage participants to find the power of their voice. Understanding the importance of intention and purpose in creating a meaningful career, sessions emphasized topics such as finding your why, creating your diverse mentor panel, and boundary setting. Several speakers demonstrated the importance of our words, whether through storytelling, advocacy work, or creating the perfect elevator pitch. Each of us strives to be a leader within our sphere of influence. Several leaders shared best practices in harnessing diverse leadership styles, leading through a crisis, and leveraging transitions to success. Recognizing that women can't do this alone, a thread of engaging our #HeforShe allies ran through the conference. 

The true impact of any conference comes after the sessions are over, both as an organization and individually. As an organization, the Women in Medicine Summit has created several longitudinal leadership courses, programming to engage and educate male allies, and a speakers bureau which will serve as a repository of speakers to help end "manels" and increase the visibility of women leaders. 

This type of programming is necessary now more than ever. As COVID-19 continues to widen the gender gap across the health care space, intentional programming, strategic planning, and a top down leadership approach is essential to avoid more lost ground. The theme of this year's conference was the power of the voice, both as a collective to advocate for change, and the power each of us held in our voices to direct and change the narrative, in our own careers, and at a system level. Individually, I left thinking how I can now leverage that newfound information into concrete actions that will allow me to achieve professional satisfaction and growth in my career. Personally, three foundational points came to the surface.

1) Create boundaries. During my early career, I often fell into the "say yes to everything" trap. As time has passed, I've had several mentors who have stressed the importance of the "deliberate yes." The key is figuring out when that should happen.

2) Know your why. You need to take the time to figure out your core values and how they align with the work you're doing. This will help guide you in deciding when an opportunity is truly an opportunity or just another addition to your list of projects that don't move you forward in some way.

3) Use your voice. Recognize that you have expertise, bring value to your organization, and, most importantly, can use that to start conversations within your sphere of influence. 

Through these types of necessary programming, I am hopeful for the future of medicine, our collective power to empower others that come after us, lift those who rise with us, and achieve personal and professional satisfaction as we work toward keeping more extraordinary women in medicine. I feel empowered, educated, elevated ... and embraced by a community of women in medicine who are lifting others as they rise! 

Rakhee K. Bhayani, MD is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. She is passionate about gender equity and resident well-being.  She is the founder and director of the Forum for Women in Medicine, a professional development initiative for women house staff and fellows in the department of medicine. She also has an active presence on Twitter @RakheeBhayaniMD. Dr. Bhayani reports no conflicts of interest.

lllustration by Jennifer Bogartz

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