When my seven year old daughter was playing tee ball, she told me she wanted to be a softball coach when she grew up. Her logic was sound: “Coach Amy is a girl and she coaches. So I can too.” As a preschooler, she realized that if you see someone who looks like you doing something, you too must be able to do it.
This past March, The New York Times looked at something similar in an article titled “Picture a Leader. Is She a Woman?” The article highlights an interesting phenomenon described by organizational psychologists. Most people when asked to draw an “effective leader” will draw a man. If they draw a gender neutral representation, they are likely to label the sketch with male pronouns and descriptors.
In other words, complicated connections in our minds draw on inherent biases and learned gendered behavior to strongly impact our representation of what jobs women can do and what a leader looks like.
As a female physician, I ran into this phenomenon almost headfirst. Last month, I was out enjoying a long run on a gorgeous day when I noticed a large, red billboard looming in the distance. Running closer toward it, I made out the details: a candid photo of a local doctor, dressed in an exquisite suit with perfect lighting, a stethoscope casually draped around his neck, with a carefully crafted caption that lauded our local insurance company for partnering in patient care.
What a wonderful ideal to strive for: working together to coordinate care in the best interest of our patients. Over the next few days, I saw three more of these lipstick red billboards dotting our local highways around the city. Three different docs—all men.
I began to realize that although well intentioned, this campaign completely missed the mark. Choosing only to display men in suits as physicians sends the following message to our young women: This is what a doctor looks like. And it’s not you.
Maybe there were no women physicians available. They must have all been busy that day. Maybe the women physicians are just hidden away deep in the peripheral suburban strip mall billboards. Either way, this lack of representation of women in medicine on a small scale mirrors a national phenomenon. Women comprise >50% of med school enrollees but when it comes to the C-suite are starkly underrepresented. Women make up less than 20% of hospital CEOs as well as deans and department chairs nationally.
I recently attended my first national meeting of the American College of Physicians. I returned to my community inspired to further my role as an advocate for Primary Care and women in medicine. I was less clear on where exactly I wanted to direct my talents. Shortly after my return, I was invited by a large local physician organization to apply to be on their board of directors. I was very excited for this opportunity, but hesitant with concerns about balancing time between my clinical roles and my family.
A few days later, however, I received a ballot with a list of physicians to add to the hospital nominating committees for the same organization. Out of more than 50 names, only TWO were women. Decision made. I submitted by CV for the board position.
The time is up. We as women in medicine need to make our presence visible. This is the driving force behind every networking event I attend for women in medicine, every career day I speak at, every card I give out to an interested student with an invitation to come shadow, every Girl Scouts Go to Med School day. If you can’t see it, how can you become it? Where can you insert yourself as a visible presence and role model for the future generation of women in medicine?
This last week, I was driving to work and was met with a wonderful vision: a new cherry red ad by the same insurance company now featuring a female physician. It’s more of a generic stock photo and not as attention grabbing as the beautifully crafted ads featuring the local male physician. But it’s a start.
Be the change you want to see. We need more Coach Amy’s and local role models in the world to inspire young girls to believe that they too can be strong, effective leaders just like us.
Dr. Lauren Kuwik is a medicine/Pediatrics physician and a 2018–19 Doximity Author.