Hospitals must identify and empower women leaders



Many potential leaders in academic medicine go unidentified, and finding those leaders is key to improving gender equity in academic medicine, said Nancy Spector, MD, in a presentation at the virtual Advance PHM Gender Equity Conference.

Dr. Nancy D. Spector, executive director, Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine; associate dean of faculty development, Drexel University, Philadelphia

Dr. Nancy D. Spector

“I think it is important to reframe what it means to be a leader, and to empower yourself to think of yourself as a leader,” said Dr. Spector, executive director for executive leadership in academic medicine program at Drexel University, Philadelphia.

“Some of the best leaders I know do not have titles,” she emphasized.

Steps to stimulate the system changes needed to promote gender equity include building policies around the life cycle, revising departmental and division governance, and tracking metrics at the individual, departmental, and organizational level, Dr. Spector said.

Aligning gender-equity efforts with institutional priorities and navigating politics to effect changes in the gender equity landscape are ongoing objectives, she said.

Dr. Spector offered advice to men and women looking to shift the system and promote gender equity. She emphasized the challenge of overcoming psychological associations of men and women in leadership roles. “Men are more often associated with agentic qualities, which convey assertion and control,” she said. Men in leadership are more often described as aggressive, ambitious, dominant, self-confident, forceful, self-reliant, and individualistic.

By contrast, “women are associated with communal qualities, which convey a concern for compassionate treatment of others,” and are more often described as affectionate, helpful, kind, sympathetic, sensitive, gentle, and well spoken, she noted.

Although agentic traits are most often associated with effective leadership, in fact, “the most effective contemporary leaders have both agentic and communal traits,” said Dr. Spector.

However, “if a woman leader is very communal, she may be viewed as not assertive enough, and it she is highly agentic, she is criticized for being too domineering or controlling,” she said.

To help get past these associations, changes are needed at the individual level, leader level, and institutional level, Dr. Spector said.

On the individual level, women seeking to improve the situation for gender equity should engage with male allies and build a pipeline of mentorship and sponsorship to help identify future leaders, she said.

Women and men should obtain leadership training, and “become a student of leadership,” she advised. “Be in a learning mode,” and then think how to apply what you have learned, which may include setting challenging learning goals, experimenting with alternative strategies, learning about different leadership styles, and learning about differences in leaders’ values and attitudes.

For women, being pulled in many directions is the norm. “Are you being strategic with how you serve on committees?” Dr. Spector asked.

Make the most of how you choose to share your time, and “garner the skill of graceful self-promotion, which is often a hard skill for women,” she noted. She also urged women to make the most of professional networking and social capital.

At the leader level, the advice Dr. Spector offered to leaders on building gender equity in their institutions include ensuring a critical mass of women in leadership track positions. “Avoid having a sole woman member of a team,” she said.

Dr. Spector also emphasized the importance of giving employees with family responsibilities more time for promotion, and welcoming back women who step away from the workforce and choose to return. Encourage men to participate in family-friendly benefits. “Standardize processes that support the life cycle of a faculty member or the person you’re hiring,” and ensure inclusive times and venues for major meetings, committee work, and social events, she added.

Dr. Spector’s strategies for institutions include quantifying disparities by using real time dashboards to show both leading and lagging indicators, setting goals, and measuring achievements.

“Create an infrastructure to support women’s leadership,” she said. Such an infrastructure could include not only robust committees for women in science and medicine, but also supporting women to attend leadership training both inside and outside their institutions.

Dr. Spector noted that professional organizations also have a role to play in support of women’s leadership.

“Make a public pledge to gender equity,” she said. She encouraged professional organizations to tie diversity and inclusion metrics to performance reviews, and to prioritize the examination and mitigation of disparities, and report challenges and successes.

When creating policies to promote gender equity, “get out of your silo,” Dr. Spector emphasized. Understand the drivers rather than simply judging the behaviors.

“Even if we disagree on something, we need to work together, and empower everyone to be thoughtful drivers of change,” she concluded.

Dr. Spector disclosed grant funding from the Department of Health & Human Services, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute. She also disclosed receiving monetary awards, honoraria, and travel reimbursement from multiple academic and professional organization for teaching and consulting programs. Dr. Spector also cofunded and holds equity interest in the I-PASS Patient Safety Institute, a company created to assist institutions in implementing the I-PASS Handoff Program.

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