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Organizational Change–Mentoring Program for Women Physicians in Emergency Medicine

ETI member Julie Welch, MD offers the first post of a three part series–how to develop a women’s mentoring program.  Thanks, Julie.  Linda Brodsky, MD

As a new physician, fresh out of residency, I was used to the “old boy’s club” and thought I fit in pretty well.  The tomboy in me had always made it easy to relate and buddy around with guys.  Choosing Emergency Medicine as a career, full of “work hard, play hard” adrenaline driven physicians, was my perfect fit as a single female who loved the outdoors.  I was an adventure seeker: climbing, hiking, snowboarding, travel & wilderness medicine and racing medicine.

My career in a busy top level trauma center put me with  a terrific group of physicians.  Our goals:  excellent patient care, academic excellence and superlative teaching of the next generation, our residents and students.  But as time went on, I  noticed subtle ways that my “femaleness” set me apart.  Distinct gender biased undertones actually existed.  From consultant attitudes, to exclusion from social networking, e.g. golf, after work poker and cigars, to decreased access to advancement opportunities, I realized there really was a gap for women in medicine.  (Not to mention the lack of a lactation station!)

As I looked to my mentor, Dr. Sue Combs, the matriarch of emergeny medicine at our hospital (and in Indiana),  I wondered how she managed  in this environment for over 30 years.  Since 1978, she worked with the same emergency medicine group, starting as a moonlighting resident, and later joining as their faculty in 1980.  She became the first double board certified physician in the state of Indiana in both Emergency Medicine and Pediatrics.  She was the only women in the group intil 1992.

Dr. Combs had seen and done it all.  Two kids, almost no maternity leave.  Demanded excellent patient care from herself and her team.  And received the greastest respect from everyone who knew her.   Mentored every female (and many male) resident, taking them under her wing to teach the practical, clinical emergency medicine, along with life lessons to keep your work-life integration flowing.  Over a decade ago, she started the first women’s EM group, inviting female physicians, residents, and students into her home twice a year for dinner and discussion on topics of interest to women in medicine.  We discussed and debated gender discrimination in the workplace with invited legal colleagues.  Stress management during residency and beyond filled one memorable evening.

When I came we had 30 residents, now there are over 60.  The number of women residents and students also increased. But the percentage of women faculty remained low.  The absence of women being promoted into leadership positions was notable.  So the few women faculty we had took on increasinga numbers of resident mentees, student advisees, and female trainees seeking guidance for personal and professional issues.  And, to my surprise, they needed more frequent advice.  Definitely a problem to be solved.

So I started having monthly get-togethers at local coffee shops.  Quickly we had 10-20 gals gathering.  The themes seemed to be similar, whether student, resident, faculty, or community physician.  How do you prioritize your life being dedicated to numerous quality pursuits:  family, patients, academic medicine, community projects, spirituality, health, exercise, partner/spouse, and me?

And that is how it started.  Stay tuned for how it grew into a formal program for mentoring women physicians in emergency medicine.


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