Women are changing the face of medicine. They make up more than half the students in medical schools and in 2014 over 38 per cent of practicing physicians were female. That number is expected to rise to more than 45 per cent by 2025. Yet women physicians remain under-represented in high-level executive, academic and leadership positions.
The reasons are many and varied. Gender stereotypes play a part as does a lack of effective mentors, sponsors, and role models. An organization’s culture is a contributing factor, as is some women’s lack of confidence in their leadership skill set. Barriers are found everywhere and even the Vancouver Medical, Dental and Allied Staff Association’s Academic Awards program has not been immune. For many years, its award winners have all been men. That changed dramatically in 2018: that year, a woman physician champion was on the selection committee (see diagram below).
(Diagram courtesy of Dr. Alana Flexman)
Only 19 per cent of VCH’s current medical leaders are women while women make up 43 per cent of the medical staff physicians. VPSA is working with the health authority to see that number grow and has held a number of events to begin the important work required so women physicians have the confidence, grit and resilience to take on leadership roles. An Appreciative Inquiry started the ball rolling in late January and was followed by the networking evening on March 1 and the opportunity to participate in the Physician Leadership Institute’s Leadership for Medical Women workshop on March 2 and 3.
The networking event for women physicians and supportive male physicians included a panel of women medical leaders: Dr. Patricia Daly, VCH Chief Medical Health Officer and VP, Public Health; Dr. Margaret McGregor, VCH Board Director and Director of Community Geriatrics; Dr. Kathleen Ross, President-Elect, Doctors of BC; and Dr. Mamta Gautam, Past-President, Federation of Medical Women of Canada and longtime faculty member with CMA’s Physician Leadership Institute. All spoke of their good fortune in having role models, a system of support, and a passion for their work.
“I enjoyed the opportunities I had to lead so I wanted to do more,” said Dr. Daly. “I believe it’s critical to help women during the early years of their careers. My advice to others: don’t be so hard on yourself. We tend to be perfectionists and have a lot of angst if we make a mistake. You don’t always have to appear strong and it’s OK to ask for help.”
“People asked me to step up… at the time I didn’t know what they saw in me; however, their confidence made me want to try harder,” said Dr. Ross. “I do my best to look out for others coming up behind me; I think that’s the most important thing I can do for other women. We need to understand their barriers.”
“This conversation is not just about women; there are also cultural and ethnic barriers to becoming a medical leader; likeness produces likeness,” emphasized Dr. McGregor. “We need to gather data and create quotas and be assertive and proactive in meeting these.”
As well as a panelist for the networking evening, Dr. Gautam was one of the PLI course facilitators.
“We need more data to demonstrate the gender gap for women leaders; numbers don’t lie and they make people think,” she said. “Women also need to increase their level of confidence to match their level of competence. The PLI course has many practical tips around this. I wish I’d had such a course 20 to 30 years ago.”
“We want to see a future where women and men physicians are working together and equally in strong leadership roles at VCH for the very best for our staff, patients and their families,” said VPSA Chair of Collaboration & Advocacy, Dr. Lynn Straatman. “VPSA will continue to work with VCH towards this goal.”
VPSA and VCH will host a second Appreciative Inquiry on April 17, 2019 to help narrow the gender gap in medical leadership at VCH and in the UBC Faculty of Medicine. Representatives from VCH senior leadership, the VCH Board of Directors, the UBC Faculty of Medicine, and VPSA members will work together to design a strategy to move forward.
Check out photos from the March 1 networking event.