Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Women leaders in medicine

Last week, I went straight from the hospital to the Washington DC Convention Center for the AMSA National Convention. I was there to receive the 2013 Women Leaders in Medicine Award, along with 4 other women; part of the award reception was a panel discussion on the significance of women leaders in medicine. We had received some questions to ponder ahead of time that the moderator would ask us, and then it would be open to the floor of mostly women medical students.

The award came as a total surprise. I had no idea who had nominated me (nominations came from medical students across the country), but was excited to hear that we would be each introduced and a brief excerpt shared from the nomination letter. I’ve been really proud of my career so far, but after seeing who my co-award winners were and the list of prior award winners (including Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and former CDC Director Julie Gerberding), I was feeling a tiny bit which-one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other.

I was up first, alphabetically, and the excerpt mentioned how well I’m able to balance an academic career with motherhood. My internal response: Well, I’m glad it seems I’m balancing it all! I guess it always feels like a work-in-progress to me. It’s always “trying to balance” and not, “Oh yeah! I’m balanced!” But, if I can send a message to others that doing both – having a successful academic career and family life— is achievable, then I’m glad.

The other award winners were Carolyn Clancy, head of the Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality; Sophie Currier, the woman who took on the NBME to allow time during the exam for nursing mothers to pump (she won!);  Petra Clark-Dufner, Director of the Urban Track at U Conn; Laura Tosi, orthopedic surgeon and director of bone health at Children's National Medical Center.

We represented a spectrum of ages and stages in our career, and I think this made the panel discussion richer since we complemented each other. We talked about leadership – how there’s not just one style but a range, and how you need to find the style that works for you. Sometimes, it’s about standing up for what you believe in, despite the consequences. Sometimes, it’s being the first and paving the way for those behind you. But, it’s also about caring for those you lead. It’s about being generous with your talent and time, and putting the needs of the people you lead ahead of your own: to help them grow.

We talked about mentors, and how you need to look beyond the traditional 1:1 model of mentorship – those traditional models are rarer today –you may have many mentors, people who can offer you pieces that will help you with the whole. And, great mentors may be actually peers, perhaps within a few years of you. Don’t be afraid to approach someone you admire and ask them for their advice or time. The worst they could say is no – and we need thicker skin than that.

We talked about challenges as women in medicine, and what we did to overcome them. For some, it was being the first, being a rarity: a female orthopedic surgeon starting many years ago. I thought having children was the biggest challenge I had faced – from  the guilt of leaving work at a reasonable time to catch my daughter before bedtime, to the mania of pumping.  My solution: I wrote about it. I also started MiM to form the community I wish I had around me (at the time, none of my colleagues had kids and didn’t really understand).

One question from the audience was, "Do you have any regrets?"  None of us did in terms of what field we chose to go into, and I didn't think I had any until I remembered one incident where I assumed people knew I wanted a certain position. I was too modest to directly voice my interest in the position, but many told me I was a shoo-in for it, and I believed it would happen. I wanted it to happen. However, I didn't get it, and when I finally had the nerve to ask why, I was told, "You wanted that? Why didn't you ever tell me? I thought you weren't interested." I was devastated. And I learned to be vocal about what I want. If people, your supervisor, those in positions of power, don't know what you want, you're unlikely going to get it.

One woman asked what would we tell our younger selves? I couldn't think of an answer to this off the top of my head, but did remember we did a topic day on this way back in 2008! (See here and it starts a few posts down: The advice we wish we had in medical school; just re-read mine and agree 100%.)

Another asked, "What's the one piece of advice would you give you women entering medicine today?"
Answer: Do what you love. We can’t predict the twists and turns our career path will take when starting out, but following what you love is the way to having a fulfilling life and keeps you going. There were several themes along this line. The room got quiet and I, who had been silent for this question, said, "Marry well." The room erupted into laughter. But, I explained that my decision to marry my husband (sitting there in the crowd, now getting slapped on the back) was the best one I had ever made for my career and otherwise. Without someone in your corner who supports you, who is an equal partner in life, it's going to be very difficult to succeed in both spheres. (I'm not the only MiM who has said this!)

Our last charge was to leave the audience with one final piece of advice. I said, "Follow your passion," which fulfilled the pithy criteria I was thinking was most important, but now looking back, I wish I had said:
We women need to stick together. We need to support each other. We need to come together and celebrate what makes being a woman in medicine special. We need to lift each other up.

Thank you for being here, lifting each other up.


  1. Congrats! I would have loved to hear the panel discussion.
    It is a far more negative take on the same theme, but I've always liked the quote by Madeleine Albright - "there is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women".

  2. Congrats on a well deserved award! Thanks again for all you do with this site.

  3. The Red - Thank you! Great quote from a great woman. I heard her speak once and wanted to immediately put a picture of her up in my proverbial locker, she was that impressive. Brilliant, witty, and articulate.

    RH+ - I feel very lucky to be able to be alongside you lovely ladies. Thanks so much.

  4. Congrats KC - well deserved. Loved reading about all the amazing women, including yourself, who devote a chunk of their stretched thin time and selves to support all the others struggling and succeeding in medicine and motherhood. The forum you provide has been invaluable to me. You are an inspiration!

  5. Congratulations (again)! What a huge honor, and indeed in great company. You are inspiring.

    Your closing line reminds me (genuinely) of what I'm hearing Sheryl Sandberg say lately, support each other and lean in.

    Thanks for MiM and your friendship, peer-mentorship, intellect, support, and laughs.

    1. I'm thinking about that concept of leaning in - am I saying that? Did I? I at least did not lean back and push away from the table when I became a mother.

      Very very thankful for your friendship and peer mentorship that all started here.

  6. Congratulations! Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the day - and for starting this blog so many years ago!

    1. Thank you, Artemis! Miss your wise words. :)

  7. I've been saving this up to read on my vacation. It didn't disappoint. Congratulations and thank you for this AWESOME post!!

    1. Thank you, Cutter. You are leading the way too. :)


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