(Women in Leadership Photo credit: Medscape)
(Photo credit: Medscape)

The number of women in medicine has grown almost ten fold since I started medical school in 1974. I had the extraordinarily good timing to be applying for one of those coveted slots right when the Feminist Movement was gaining a lot of traction in the 70’s. Everyone I interviewed with told me they wanted their medical school to be the first one in the country to have 50% women.

Fast forward to today and we find that women have made great strides towards reaching that goal. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report, as of June 2015, women accounted for 32% of U.S. physicians. The 2012 Edition of the American Medical Association’s Physician Characteristics and Distribution in the U.S. reports that the number is even higher if we look at women in medical training programs—45% of residents and fellows are female.


The Medscape 2015 women as physician leaders report

But, like their male counterparts, women in medicine also aspire to leadership positions. There, the news is not so positive according to a recently released report from Medscape, “Women as Physician Leaders” report.

They surveyed 3,285 practicing female physicians. A thousand seven hundred and sixty-four (53%) of the women had held a leadership position and were designated as “leaders” in the survey. The 1,521 who had not held a leadership position were referred to as “non-leaders.

Overall, 88% of the women surveyed, whether they were leaders or non-leaders, responded that leadership in the workplace is important for women in general. Women leaders were substantially more likely than non-leaders to view attaining a leadership position as important to them personally. Even so, almost half (42%) of non-leaders reported that leadership is a very or somewhat important personal goal.

Most of the leadership positions women held were in their main practice settings where they served as medical director, practice owner, practice partner, or leader of a hospital committee.

Only 12% of women overall reported leadership positions in Academic Departments. There were no Deans or Vice Deans amongst the women surveyed. According to a 2014 report from the Association of American Medical Colleges, women make up a little more than one-third of full-time academic medicine faculty. They hold 15% of permanent department chair positions and 16% of dean positions.

Only 12% of the surveyed women held leadership positions in Professional Organizations or Societies. Four percent of the leader group reported being President of their Professional Organization, 2% each reported being Vice President, Secretary or Treasurer. Fewer women leaders felt being a leader in a Professional Organization was very important compared to leadership in a practice or academic setting. The findings are more striking for non-leaders: 44% of them said leadership in their main practice setting was very important or somewhat important compared to only 19% for professional organizations or societies.

(Leadership in main practice slide from Medscape's 2015 Women as Physician Leaders Report)
(Slide from Medscape’s 2015 Women as Physician Leaders Report)


Why women want to lead

Effecting change and being a positive influence for others in the organization are the top two reasons why women pursue leadership positions. About half of the leader group wanted the ability to shape their own path and 47% said they found the challenges associated with leadership fulfilling. Financial compensation, prestige, and bolstering a resumé ranked at the bottom.

(Reasons for pursuing leadership slide from Medscape's 2015 Women as Physician Leaders Report)
(Slide from Medscape’s 2015 Women as Physician Leaders Report)


How did they get there and what did they experience?

One of the most fascinating results of the survey was the answers to the question, “What do you believe helped you or might help you attain a leadership position?

Women who were leaders were most likely to report that they got to the top by excelling at their jobs (72%), although a substantial percent (44%) acknowledged that building alliances was also important. The non-leaders, I think more accurately, reported that building alliances, having peer support, mentors, and female role models were as important as being good at their jobs. This is something that men in leadership have known for years and is, I believe, one of the reasons that more of them are able to get the leadership jobs.

(Help becoming a leader slide from Medscape's 2015 Women as Physician Leaders Report)
(Slide from Medscape’s 2015 Women as Physician Leaders Report)

Another interesting finding is that non-leaders cited political bickering/infighting (55%) and gender bias (40%) as challenges they anticipate in leadership positions, but fewer leaders report having these challenges (35% political bickering/infighting; 24% gender bias).

Taking these two findings together suggests to me that the leaders who responded to this survey were blessed by working hard and getting what they wanted without the negatives that many of us who have served as women leaders have experienced.

I would love to hear your impressions in the comment section below.



It is appropriate to end the review of the survey by looking at happiness—because isn’t that, after all, what we are all seeking whether by taking on a prestigious leadership position or avoiding the perceived stress such a position would entail.

(Personal Happiness slide from Medscape's 2015 Women as Physician Leaders Report)
(Personal Happiness slide from Medscape’s 2015 Women as Physician Leaders Report)

Although work tends to get in the way of personal life in slightly more leaders than non-leaders (57% vs 48%), slightly more leaders (72%) report being very happy or somewhat happy with their work lives than non-leaders (63%). This isn’t because they are unhappy with their personal lives. This group of women (both leaders and non-leaders) are in fact a happy bunch with the vast majority reporting that they are happy or somewhat happy in their personal lives.


The final word

I am going to leave the final word to Diana Lautenberger, MAT, director of women in medicine and science for the Association of American Medical Colleges who says of the survey findings:

“It’s great to celebrate progress, but we still have so far to go. Women have represented about half of medical school entering classes for 15 years. They should be similarly represented in middle-level leadership positions, but this number has only marginally changed over the past 20 years. Even though we have equal numbers of women coming into the medical sector, they are still being pushed out by a culture that doesn’t support their advancement. It’s very encouraging that women are showing satisfaction and success in leadership positions; now we need to focus on our organizational cultures to address bias and give talented women opportunities to hold these positions.”

There is more information to be gleaned from this study. You can find the full slide deck and narrative here.


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