Strength in Numbers: Women in Medicine Find Power Together

Aine Cryts

November 04, 2021

The father of Bettye Kearse, MD, PhD, was a physician. A self-described "Daddy's girl," she spent countless Wednesdays with him as he conducted house rounds with patients. That's when she witnessed "how intimately he took care of people," she says. Kearse wanted to do that, too, she says. After earning a PhD in genetics, she went to medical school.

Finding good childcare for her daughter was a challenge during her career as a physician, said Kearse, looking back. There were times when Kearse had to bring her daughter to work, where she would stay in the call room or the break room. In her role as physician, she was either treated as if she either "wasn't up to the job" or that she was "the remarkable exception," she said.

To Kearse, it felt as if she had to live in a state of "superwoman-hood." But as she started to network with other women physicians in the Boston area, she learned that she wasn't alone. That's what inspired her in the early 1990s to seek out women physicians to "bring us together," she said.

Dr Bettye Kearse

This networking led Kearse to found Diva Docs, a professional and social network for Black women physicians in the Boston area.

Kearse, a retired pediatrician, shared her story as co-moderator of a panel called "The Power of the Sisterhood: Ways to Create Bonds Between Black Women and other Women in Medicine and Health" at the Black Women In Medicine Conference. The conference was held November 3 and was organized by the Massachusetts Medical Society.

She was joined in the panel by Shikha Jain, MD, FACP, assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology at the University of Illinois, in Chicago. Her father, also a physician, often took Jain on rounds to see patients when she was growing up. "I'd see postoperative staples in people's legs. I knew that I wanted to be a doctor," she said.

Dr Shikha Jain

Jain is president and CEO of Women in Medicine, a nonprofit organization that trains women in healthcare to eliminate the gender gap in society and the professional American healthcare system. During the panel discussion, Jain confessed to attributing stresses in her career to feeling that she "just wasn't good enough." That experience motivated her to organize the Women in Medicine Summit, a conference that focuses on promoting gender parity in healthcare.

Breaking Down Barriers, Building Connections

It's easy to feel isolated as a high-achieving physician and as a woman, said Sasha Shillcutt, MD, FACE, vice chair and professor at the University of Nebraska, in Lincoln, Nebraska, and CEO of BraveEnough, which teaches women work-life control through community and courses. She encourages women to build meaningful relationships with other women physician leaders, even if they may have been hurt by women in the past. "We have to recognize that all of us are struggling. We're not perfect. They may be a mentor or a sponsor or an ally. It's worth reaching out," says Shillcutt.

Nancy Spector, MD, professor of pediatrics and vice dean for faculty at Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, agreed. She observed that for a woman leader, any misstep can be "catastrophic." As a result, many women leaders develop protective mechanisms. The idea is to fit in so you'll survive, added Spector, who's also executive director of Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine, which offers fellowships to women who are interested in leadership roles in academic medicine, dentistry, public health, and pharmacy.

She pointed to a 2020 article in The Lancet that took a fresh look at the "queen bee phenomenon," which holds that strong, successful women may be more likely to sabotage female colleagues than help them. The article revealed that women leaders are more likely than their male colleagues to support other women, according to empirical evidence.

The key is ensuring that women leaders "feel more secure and less scrutinized," according to the Lancet article. The end result is they're more likely to promote other women. Still, the article put the onus of supporting women on both male and female leaders.

"Moving forward, we propose intervening on bias and discrimination in the workplace rather than pitting women against each other. If we can create truly equitable workplaces where everyone can advance according to their skills, contributions, and ambitions, we can create more space for all people to behave respectfully and generously to one another," wrote the co-authors.

Kearse, Jain, Shillcutt, and Spector were joined on the panel by Elena Rios, MD, MSPH, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Association, and Katherine Sharkey, MD, PhD, assistant dean for women in medicine at Brown School of Medicine, Providence, Rhode Island. Kearse's co-moderator was Philomena Asante, MD, MPH, leader of Diva Docs Boston, founder of Black Women Doctors Network, and a staff physician at Boston University Student Health Services.

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