Listen up, ladies. All of you strong, brilliant, and deserving women in medicine. The physicians, NPs, PAs, nurses, and other women currently in or thinking about future leadership roles in health care.
Are you aware that male physicians make up to $2 million more than female physicians over their medical career? If not, I suggest you read more here: “Women Earn $2 Million Less Than Men in Their Careers as Doctors.”
Do you know that nearly 80 percent of the health care workforce is female, but women hold only 20 percent of the leadership roles?
I know you know that women are brilliant and just as capable as men to invent things and become entrepreneurs. Why then are women less likely to pursue patents and protect their intellectual property than men? And why are women less likely to commercialize their innovations or start their own medical entrepreneurship career? Y’all can get a healthy dose of data and information here: “Innovation and Intellectual Property among Women Entrepreneurs,” “The Gender Gap Within Intellectual Property,” and “Proportion, Type, and Characteristics of Physician Entrepreneurship in Massachusetts.”
Please understand that the above is a very small representation of the data out there documenting gender disparities and discrimination in medicine. This is a fact. This unfortunate culture is particularly prevalent in academic settings, where all of us physicians spend the first decade of our career in medical school and residency. Women represent more than half of the incoming medical students, but we are surrounded by male (particularly white male) dominant decision-makers and hierarchy.
I’m annoyed. Are you? Let’s dive into this some more.
Self-advocacy and negotiation
Women initiate negotiations less often than their male counterparts, particularly at the beginning of their career. It is not unusual for an organization to tell a graduating resident that they are being offered the best or highest salary available. Lacking the skills and confidence to negotiate, many female physicians trust and accept this first offer with no questions asked.
Know your worth. Do your homework and always ask for what you need and deserve. Negotiate what is important to you. This may not be money. Negotiate to achieve the work-life balance that you and your family need. I guarantee if you ask for it, you will almost always get it. I also guarantee that our male colleagues are doing this.
Sponsorship is critical for career advancement, especially for women. Having a sponsor is different than having a mentor. Whereas a mentor provides guidance and support to a mentee, a sponsor is a more formal professional relationship. A sponsor leverages their position of power to endorse the promotion of someone with leadership and growth potential. Sponsorship in medicine can look like a CEO recommending a manager for a committee nomination, a CMO encouraging a medical assistant to apply for a leadership role then writing them a letter of recommendation, or a physician advocating for their nurse to receive a pay raise with witnessed examples of the nurse’s accomplishments.
Women are less likely than men to actively seek out sponsorship from those in leadership positions. Men are more likely to ask potential sponsors for a nomination or recommendation as well as clearly share their goals of leadership with those already in positions of power.
Know your vision for your career. Identify the people in leadership positions that can influence your ability to achieve your goals. Find ways to work with these people. At a minimum, reach out to these potential sponsors and communicate your interests and goals and ask for their feedback on how to achieve them. I found the courage to do this early in my career and was immediately dismissed and told “I was too green” from the person I approached. I immediately identified others in positions of power to connect with while I proved my leadership potential. If you don’t get the support that you need at first … move on and go find it.
Entrepreneurial and IP differences by gender
Intellectual property (IP), such as patents, are designed to encourage and protect creativity and innovation. This topic is critical, particularly during this time of rapid innovation in health care design and delivery. Patent ownership is a known factor for business economic success with patent holders receiving more funding than those that don’t own or have their innovation protected.
Women are less likely to obtain IP protection for their ideas and are less likely to commercialize or market their innovations and profit from them. There are likely many factors at play here, but known social biases most certainly have a role. Filing for a patent and starting a business require significant risk-taking, confidence, and a network of support. Women in our society are expected to NOT be bold and brave and many women themselves even believe this to be true (implicit bias deserves to be addressed separately). Research shows women feel less confident than men in their future success as entrepreneurs; however, women-led companies have a higher return on investment and stock price performance.
Know that a woman’s entrepreneurial success should not be seen as a threat to her current employer, but rather an asset that can be leveraged for the company. Protect your ideas and IP by having a lawyer involved in any contracts and conflict of interest policies. If your current employer does not appreciate your contributions and commitment to further your career and industry, find one that does.
Pissed off yet? What are we going to do about it?
Self-promote. Get over the discomfort to “toot your own horn.” Set yourself up for success by documenting your accomplishments and failures over time in an organized manner so that you can refer to your experiences readily during preparation for interviews or contract negotiations. Society has taught us that women shouldn’t be assertive, bold, and ambitious in leadership positions for a fear of others interpreting these “masculine” traits as unpleasant. Unsurprisingly, leadership requires us to be all these things and more if we are going to succeed. You can find that balance of strong leadership traits and having empathy with those we lead.
Sponsorship. If you are in a position of leadership (female or male) in medicine it’s simple. Make the time and space to engage with your less-experienced female colleagues and, if you believe in their potential, be sure to act. Introduce them to other individuals in leadership in person and through email. Forward them ideas, committees to join, or memberships you found helpful in the past to grow and connect. If you aren’t yet in a position of leadership and you desire this growth, actively seek out sponsors.
Protect your ideas. If you have an idea or implement a large project with YOUR vision, don’t hesitate to take credit. If your innovation may be worth protecting so that it can scale up and disrupt an industry, do NOT sell yourself and your idea short. If you have an interest in bettering yourself, your family, and your career through entrepreneurship, give it a shot. Be bold and engage in conversations with others who have done this to build a network and gain the confidence you need.
Becca Hayes is an internal medicine-pediatrics physician and health care executive.
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