Practice Management

Men occupy most leadership roles in medicine



Since the early 2000s, approximately half of medical students in the United States – and in many years, more than half – have been women, but the proportion of women occupying leadership roles in medicine remains low, according to an update provided at the virtual Pediatric Hospital Medicine.

Vincent Chiang, MD

Dr. Vincent Chiang

In pediatrics, a specialty in which approximately 70% of physicians are now women, there has been progress, but still less than 30% of pediatric department chairs are female, said Vincent Chiang, MD, chief medical officer of Boston Children’s Hospital, during a presentation at the virtual meeting sponsored by the Society of Hospital Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Academic Pediatric Association.

Citing published data and a survey he personally conducted of the top children’s hospitals identified by the U.S. News and World Report, Dr. Chiang said a minority of division chiefs, chief medical officers, chief financial officers, and other leaders are female. At his institution, only 2 of 16 division chiefs are female.

“No matter how you slice it, women are underrepresented in leadership positions,” he noted.

The problem is certainly not confined to medicine. Dr. Chiang cited data showing that women and men have reached “near parity” in workforce participation in the United States even though the 20% earnings gap has changed little over time.

According to 2020 data from the World Economic Forum, the United States ranked 51 for the gender gap calculated on the basis of economic, political, educational, and health attainment. Even if this places the United States in the top third of the rankings, it is far behind Iceland and the Scandinavian countries that lead the list.

Efforts to reduce structural biases are part of the fix, but Dr. Chiang cautioned that fundamental changes might never occur if the plan is to wait for an approach based on meritocracy. He said that existing structural biases are “slanted away from women,” who are not necessarily granted the opportunities that are readily available to men.

“A meritocracy only works if the initial playing field was level. Otherwise, it just perpetuates the inequalities,” he said.

The problem is not a shortage of women with the skills to lead. In a study by Zenger/Folkman, a consulting company that works on leadership skill development, women performed better than men in 16 of 18 leadership categories, according to Dr. Chiang.

“There is certainly no shortage of capable women,” he noted.

Of the many issues, Dr. Chiang highlighted two. The first is the challenge of placing women on leadership pathways. This is likely to require proactive strategies, such as fast-track advancement programs that guide female candidates toward leadership roles.

The second is more nuanced. According to Dr. Chiang, women who want to assume a leadership role should think more actively about how and who is making decisions at their institution so they can position themselves appropriately. This is nuanced because “there is a certain amount of gamesmanship,” he said. The rise to leadership “has never been a pure meritocracy.”

Importantly, many of the key decisions in any institution involve money, according to Dr. Chiang. As a result, he advised those seeking leadership roles to join audit committees or otherwise take on responsibility for profit-and-loss management. Even in a nonprofit institution, “you need to make the numbers work,” he said, citing the common catchphrase: “No margin, no mission.”

However, Dr. Chiang acknowledged the many obstacles that prevent women from working their way into positions of leadership. For example, networking is important, but women are not necessarily attracted or invited to some of the social engagements, such as golf outings, where strong relationships are created.

In a survey of 100,000 people working at Fortune 500 companies, “82% of women say they feel excluded at work and much of that comes from that informal networking,” Dr. Chiang said. “Whereas 92% of men think they are not excluding women in their daily work.”

There is no single solution, but Dr. Chiang believes that concrete structural changes are needed. Female doctors remain grossly underrepresented in leadership roles even as they now represent more than half of the workforce for many specialties. Based on the need for proactive approaches outlined by Dr. Chiang, it appears unlikely that gender inequality will ever resolve itself.

Lisa S. Rotenstein, MD, who has written on fixing the gender imbalance in health care, including for the Harvard Business Review, said she agreed during an interview that structural changes are critical.

“In order to address current disparities, leaders should be thinking about how to remove both the formal and informal obstacles that prevent women and minorities from getting into the rooms where these decisions are being made,” said Dr. Rotenstein, who is an instructor in medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School in Boston.

“This will need to involve sponsorship that gets women invited to the right committees or in positions with responsibility for profit-and-loss management,” she added.

Dr. Rotenstein spoke about improving “access to the pipeline” that leads to leadership roles. The ways in which women are excluded from opportunities is often subtle and difficult to penetrate without fundamental changes, she explained.

“Institutions need to understand the processes that lead to leadership roles and make the changes that allow women and minorities to participate,” she said. It is not enough to recognize the problem, according to Dr. Rotenstein.

Like Dr. Chiang, she noted that changes are needed in the methods that move underrepresented groups into leadership roles.

Dr. Chiang reported no potential conflicts of interest relevant to this study.

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