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Who Makes A Better Physician Leader? Women, Men or the Best Available Person?

Leaders and followersLast week’s WMDR newsletter highlighted conferences put on by women physicians and surgeons for women physicians and surgeons.  Women as leaders happens in a big way at these conferences. At the same time, in medicine as a whole, while women are gaining in parity, they are lagging in power that comes with leadership. The power to help shape the agenda in a leadership role gives us the ability to be more impactful on policy and patient care. Our absence from leadership positions bodes poorly for our patients, the healthcare system and for our investment in ourselves as physicians.

The WMDR poll asked the question, “Who makes better leaders, women, men or the best person available?”  Of course, to no one’s surprise, the third choice received unanimous vote.  Makes sense, doesn’t it?

If it really makes sense, we have to accept the fact that the men are the best available leaders for the jobs.  After all, they are 88% of the deans, chairs, journal editors, and leaders in organized medicine.  Either they are better leaders or we are not smart enough to pick the best leaders possible.

The question itself forced us to our default thinking that we are disposed to pick the “best leaders” and that sex (or race or nationality) does not factor into our decision.  But it clearly does, otherwise there would be more women leaders.So why aren’t women physicians leading the way?  These three very successful conferences (which are only a few among many this year) show that we are both available and able.

That leaves us with one conclusion.  It is not the skills, or the willingness or the job.  It must be the process.  The process favors “the best available” based on the way these leadership skills are characterized as “likely for success.”

These 7 basic strategies can help women physicians to break into leadership positions:

1.  Be confident in putting forth your own agenda; have faith in the value of your own ideas.

2.  Do not fear the the risk of rejection.  It is going to happen, just keep trying.

3.  Learn to “work the room.”  Go outside your comfort zone in greeting those you perceive might have more influence or power.

4.  Help–give it and get it from colleagues of both sexes.

5.  Communicate both authoritatively and warmly to diffuse cultural dissonance and gender stereotyping.

6.  Volunteer often and be willing to start small, but don’t allow yourself to stay small for long.

7.  Smile whenever you can.

Women make good leaders.  We don’t need to prove it to ourselves or to others. But what we do have to do is change the way the game is played.  Get on the inside and make the process fair to women.  So, if and when you have the privilege to be in a position of leadership, create changes which increase the pool of talent.  These are the keys to our collective success.

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