Joanne Conroy, MD

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A Steeper Trek to the Top for Women in Healthcare?

The Wall Street Journal devoted an entire section on Tuesday, September 27, to “Women in the Workplace.” It was thought-provoking and made me consider where we are at my own organization.

The consensus from the articles was that the experience in the workplace is very different for men than it is for women. Women feel they have a steeper trek to the top and that there are fewer opportunities for advancement. They feel invisible in that they often do not get credit for ideas that they originate. Even in a healthcare setting, where 80 percent of the workforce is female, this happens frequently. Women in my own organization have shared stories of not being credited for their work or their leadership. One talented woman was told that she was perceived as too assertive….in a role where I want her to be pushing others for top performance!

I acknowledge that this feels like a minefield for men and certainly this election year there is a lot of campaign rhetoric around it! However, men need to navigate through it because you care about your wives, daughters, and female co-workers.

All of us probably have experienced gender or racial privilege without even appreciating it. The right thing to do is to use that privilege in a leadership way to create an environment that is welcoming for those who don’t. Without privilege, people can have low self-esteem and little self-confidence. As an African American woman in the workplace, Lori Lakin Hutcherson writes, “But the point here is, if you’ve never been on the receiving end of a boss’ prejudiced, uninformed ‘how dare she question my ideas’ badmouthing based on solely on his ego and your race, you have white privilege.”

Privilege and its all-too-frequent corollary, bias, are present even in the rarified air of the White House. In the early days of the Obama administration, female staffers employed a creative strategy called amplification to ensure that their contributions and ideas were not overlooked. Whenever one woman in a meeting made an important point, the other women made sure to repeat it.

Why is it so important to pay attention to this? Companies know that equity across gender and race is as good for businesses as it is for individuals. We know that companies that are committed to equity have better performance. Companies are getting creative with solutions, but we all have a lot of work to do to create equity in workplaces everywhere.

Here are some of the things we are doing at my organization:

Creating visibility: We are assuring that women move into leadership roles at the same pace male colleagues by improving the rigor of the recruitment process even if we are only considering internal candidate. We recruit a diverse pool and everyone goes through the process.

Assuring pay equity: We use impartial third parties to examine gender equity in our compensation practices. Research shows that being a physician does not protect you from inequities.

Get the bias right out on the table: We are encouraging women to negotiate and ask for what they believe they deserve, even though, as Sheryl Sandberg said, “Research shows when they do so effectively, they are going to be liked less.” Let’s just acknowledge that.

Make sure that we are hiring for diversity: We all feel comfortable around people who are “like us,” but then you don’t get the best thinking. I am an extrovert. If I only hired people like me, I would lose all of the very important contributions I get from the introverts on my team who are listening (instead of talking) and thoughtfully offering solutions.

We must create work environments where people believe that their personal and professional growth is blind to race or gender. Healthcare organizations have the DNA (80 percent of employees have XX chromosomes) to lead the way.

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