For medicine to grow, we need to look at our own biases

If you had told me I would be writing someday on women’s issues, I would have grabbed a pulse oximeter and placed it on your finger to check your oxygen levels. As a physician scientist, I have spent the majority of my career reading, studying and writing on clinical medicine. Then, something changed.

For years, I have had the pleasure of working with and for some pretty phenomenal men in medicine. These men are #heforshes. They invite me to speak on panels and collaborate on research studies and publish manuscripts. They have nominated me for committees and leadership positions, and I count each of them a friend. I believe they promote me not because I am a woman — they promote me simply because they know I will deliver.

So why would I, who has had a successful career thus far, speak out on women’s issues? Wouldn’t I be smarter to just keep working in the current culture and stay mum? What changed?

Two things:

1. Recognition of my own biases.

2. Realization my success significantly changed with the simple yet powerful action of two women physicians who couldn’t even pronounce my name right.

There was a time where I was an academic nobody. I had zero publications and no national presence. But I had passion, drive and decent speaking skills. I could write, albeit not as well as now, and was full of ideas on how to improve my area of medicine. What I lacked was a mentor, a sponsor or anyone to take a chance on me.

I decided to get involved in my national medical society — the Society of Cardiovascular Anesthesiologists — which proved to be one of the smartest career decisions I’ve made. I received something even more important than mentorship. I received sponsorship.

I entered a contest where a junior person had the ability to stand on stage for eight minutes and present a medically challenging case. My submission was selected. I stood up in front of hundreds of people and presented my case. Those eight minutes drastically changed my career trajectory. Afterward, the two women in the society who organized it approached me. Those two women, in many ways, changed my career.

Why? They quickly introduced me to several leaders in the society — important men who were in positions to make decisions. These women basically said this: “Sasha has potential. Give Sasha a chance.”

And they did.

Now, here’s the thing: I had to show up. I couldn’t shy away from responsibilities or big talks or grunt work. And now, I am one of three physicians who run the very same national meeting. Many physicians do what I did — they depend on medical societies for academic promotion, education, networking and career advancement.

If you look at the current facts, most society leadership positions are held by men. A recent study by Paloma Toledo, MD and colleagues shows that in the American Society of Anesthesiology, inclusion of women and minorities in society leadership lags behind the representation of women and minorities in the general workforce and in medicine.

If you are up to speed on women’s issues in medicine, you will know the name: Julie Silver, MD. Dr. Silver is an associate professor and vice chair of the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School and leads two Harvard leadership courses.

Dr. Silver recently published a study on her own medical society, AAPM&R. She noticed that while the society was made up of a fair amount of women (34 percent), most of the awards, lectureships and recognition within the society were given to males (84 percent males vs. 16 percent to females).

Dr. Silver was very forthcoming with her society in her desire to study this issue. According to Dr. Silver, when she published her findings that showed that the majority of recognition awards were given to men — her society was thankful. They responded with formal action plans on how to improve this and work to change their own unconscious biases.

Why did they respond so favorably to a physician pointing out a bias? Because Julie’s work wasn’t meant to bring anyone down; it was to bring others up.

Last year as I was planning a large national meeting, I sat down with a spreadsheet and a pot of coffee to select physician speakers for a large meeting. I started filling in spaces and linking topics with experts and spent several hours looking at about 100 names. I was so pleased with my finished product.

Then, I looked again. And my heart stopped.

I myself had filled in those blocks with 90 percent male speakers in an organization where approximately 35 percent of the expert pool to pick from were women.

Why had I done this? I realized I had my own bias, because I only heard the men speak. I thought of women, of equal expertise, rank and experience who I could have filled in a spot instead of male counterpart. But why hadn’t I? Because I had never heard the women speak, and I didn’t know if they were good speakers. But why was that? Because like the person before me filling out the speaker assignments, we all have an unconscious bias. And we hadn’t sponsored those women to speak. We don’t know it, we don’t mean it, but it is there.

I challenge you to practice mindfulness when you think about sponsoring others. Do you actively support and challenge deserving women to nominate themselves for recognition awards? If you serve on a committee, do you nominate them?

We need our medical societies to advance and grow. And since we make up our medical societies, and we are the societies. We need to look at our own biases. What I have learned is my own bias. One that left out women and left out minorities. As a leader, I am changing me. I encourage you to do the same!

Look inside yourself. You may be surprised what you find there. Be #heforshe. Be a #sheforshe.

Sasha K. Shillcutt is an anesthesiologist who blogs at Brave Enough.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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