Medical School Diversity

Women wanting to lead in medicine can start when they’re students

Brendan Murphy , Senior News Writer

While nearly half of medical school graduates are women, that population isn’t proportionately represented in medical education leadership. Thirty-eight percent of faculty members at medical schools are women and that number drops significantly in more prominent leadership roles—21 percent of full professors are women and 16 percent of deans are women.

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A program launched by faculty and students at the Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine aims to increase the number of women in leadership roles in medical education and across medicine. Members of the Women’s Leadership Development Program (WLDP) discussed its role within OHSU and the longer-term objectives it hopes to achieve during the Accelerating Change in Medical Education Student-Led Conference on Leadership.

“We are trying to dispel this very, very common feeling of the imposter syndrome, a feeling of not belonging or not being capable, which is at the heart of a lot of lacking in confidence in the beginning of medical school,” said Sasha Narayan, a second-year medical student who was a member of the first year’s cohort and is now a leader of the program.

“The idea is to empower women medical students by saying, ‘You are wanted here. We see the value of your skills and what you bring to the table.’ We do that through the curriculum and through the vital social support aspects of the [program].”

You can learn more about how women can position themselves as physician leaders from Vineet Arora, MD, a board-certified internist, academic hospitalist, assistant dean of scholarship and discovery, and director of GME Clinical Learning Environment and Innovation at the University of Chicago.

During a webinar on Sept. 12, noon–1 p.m. CDT, Dr. Arora will describe common barriers faced by women physicians in obtaining leadership roles in academic medicine and medical practice and identify strategies that women in medicine can use to advance as leaders. 1.0 AMA PRA Category 1 Credit™ is available. 

The webinar is just one of the activities that will mark this September’s Women in Medicine Month, organized by the AMA Women Physicians Section. The AMA-WPS will mark Women in Medicine Day on Sept. 7.

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Back at OHSU, the WLDP was started as a pilot program in 2016 by faculty, Megan Furnari, MD, and students Kelsey Priest, Angela Steichen and Ali Pincus. The program nearly doubled in size for this 2017–2018 school year and added faculty Elizabeth Lahti, MD, who is the director of narrative medicine for the OHSU School of Medicine curriculum.

The WLDP offers support, education and leadership development opportunities to help female physician trainees at OHSU grow as leaders and thrive during their time as students and beyond. Members of the WLDP are accepted into the program prior to arriving on campus, giving them a support system of colleagues on day one.

The transition to medical school can be a tough one. WLDP sessions offer advice on coping with the stresses of it in various ways, such as mindfulness, celebrating personal narrative through writing and reflection, affirming each woman's value in class discussions, resume building, connecting with attending female physicians in the OHSU community, and community service.

“A lot of the [WLDP] curriculum that we do is supporting the continued growth of students by supporting their mental health and wellness,” Narayan said. “Sometimes interactions in a hospital can be pretty challenging, in general. But also, sometimes, interactions in a hospital can be pretty challenging as a woman. We are tying all those things together.”

To change the future for women in medicine, WLDP members must grasp of the current state of affairs, the history that preceded them and the issues of intersectionality in medicine. The WLDP has featured lectures and discussion sessions with women leaders in medicine. At times, members say, these lectures can be discouraging yet emboldening, such as those that detail gender disparities in physician salaries and leadership positions. Through this discomfort, women learn negotiating and other skills that can be used to drive change in their future, Narayan said.

As the WLDP grows, the hope is that program alumnae will function as mentors and offer networking opportunities to the younger members. (WLDP members are most involved in the program during their first two years of training, when they spend much of their time in a classroom setting.) The group is seeing some encouraging early returns in the leadership realm. Out of the 20 people elected to the OHSU School of Medicine class of 2020 student council, 15 were women. Six of those women were members of WLDP, increasing the total representation of women in student council to 75 percent from an average of 45 percent in prior years. Additionally, at least five other WLDP members hold leadership positions on administrative committees in the school of medicine.

“A lot of moving forward in understanding the bias is recognizing it,” Narayan said. “If we work together and  work with others within the system to increase awareness, systematic changes can be made. That’s been the biggest goal: By empowering women medical students early in their careers to be change agents, we can work together to have a greater influence on systemic bias than any single person could do on their own.”

The WLDP is supported by financial contributions from the Oregon Medical Association, the Medical Society of Metropolitan Portland, the Robert L. Bacon Medical Education Enrichment award, and the Innovations in Education Grant from the OHSU School of Medicine.

The OHSU students’ presentation was among dozens of presentations, workshops and speeches that took place during the student-led conference. Co-hosted by the University of Michigan Medical School and the AMA, the theme of the conference was “learn, connect, empower, impact.”  OHSU School of Medicine is a member of the AMA Accelerating Change in Medical Education Consortium.