Why Female Docs Need to 'Lean In'

Hansa Bhargava, MD


September 17, 2015

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Since the 1970s, the number of women entering the medical field has increased dramatically. Back then, women represented only 10% of all doctors. Now, a third of US physicians are women.[1] Why, then, are there still fewer women in medicine's top positions?

To find out, Medscape surveyed more than 3000 female doctors and asked for their thoughts on leadership challenges and opportunities. "Leader" was defined as holding a partner position or a leadership position in academics or a professional organization. We found that more than half of our respondents held a partner position or an academic or organizational title.

We also sought to find out what drove respondents to leadership positions in the first place and what made them pause. Most of the women who were leaders by the survey's definition said that a leadership position was important to them personally, whereas less than half of those who weren't leaders felt that it was vital to them. This next response struck me: Almost all of the doctors said that leadership was important for women in general to make an impact and effect change.

So the question becomes, "If leadership is important in general to all of our survey takers, what made almost half of the women not want to take on those roles?" It turns out that the answer is pretty universal and is what all women worry about: the challenge of balancing personal life with work. Work-life balance was the most commonly cited challenge for leaders and was the anticipated concern of non-leaders. Not having enough time to get everything done is probably an issue for all women physicians at some point. I can certainly say that it has been true for me as a physician and a mom of twins.

But the truth is that if you are in a leadership position, you may end up having more flexibility. I've had friends and colleagues deliberately choose the research track and get an academic title so that they can have more control over their schedule and, therefore, have more time to spend with their children. A physician who becomes a partner in a practice can often influence the scheduling of patients and make it to her son's afternoon soccer game. By being a leader in an organization, you can influence large change by having a say in policy. Another interesting point to note is that women in leadership positions reported more job satisfaction and the majority were happy with their personal lives.

How can you become a leader in the first place? In our survey, the leaders cited excelling at their jobs and building alliances as the top factors in getting them to where they are. Both groups agreed that spouse support certainly helped. Also, women who were in leadership positions asked for a promotion more often and were likely to get what they asked for; 75% of women physicians who asked for a promotion got at least a partial one. This seemed to hold true for getting a high salary, too: 80% of those who asked got at least a part of what they asked for.

Overall, the takeaway message is about going for what you want. If you are interested in a leadership position, go for it. Ask and you may well receive. Excel at your job and lean in. Women in leadership positions seem to be happy with their work, and a good portion seem to be able to balance both work and life well.


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