Medicine involves leadership. Nearly all physicians take on significant leadership responsibilities over the course of their career, but unlike any other occupation where management skills are important, physicians are neither taught how to lead nor are they typically rewarded for good leadership. Even though medical institutions have designated “leadership” as a core medical competency, leadership skills are rarely taught and reinforced across the continuum of medical training. As more evidence shows that leadership skills and management practices positively influence both patient and healthcare organization outcomes, it’s becoming clear that leadership training should be formally integrated into medical and residency training curricula.
In most professions, the people who demonstrate strong leadership skills are the ones who take on greater leadership responsibilities at progressive stages of their careers. In medicine, physicians not only begin managing and directing teams early in their careers, but they rise through the ranks uniformly.
Female physicians continue to face myriad challenges in medicine ranging from implicit bias to gaps in payment and promotion to sexual harassment. So it is not surprising (though it’s still appalling) that although equal numbers of men and women now graduate from medical school, only a small fraction of female physicians become medical leaders. Currently in the US, only 3% of healthcare CEOs are women, 6% are department chairs, 9% are division chiefs, and 3% are serving as chief medical officers. This is despite women comprising 80% of the healthcare workforce and evidence that having women in upper management and on corporate boards is associated with improved financial performance and enhanced accountability.
These numbers point to a clear need for better representation of female physicians in leadership. How exactly to achieve this given the many barriers they face is less clear. Yet bright spots have emerged, both