In most Western countries women comprise more than half of medical students and medical graduates. But in most parts of the world male preponderance among doctors increases, the higher the position in the academic hierarchy. Yet a vast majority of the medical establishment believes that qualified leaders will reach the top, irrespective of sex.
Traditionally, reasons explaining the lack of female leaders include: women have not been in the medical field sufficiently long; family reasons prevent competing; and women lack the required leadership skills. However, failure to advance is largely due to systematic disadvantages women daily face rather than these reasons.
US women who managed to climb in the hierarchy were willing/needed to sacrifice more regarding their private life but also that this dedication to their professional career adds to their quality of life.
A literature search (2011) gave few recent hits. Does this reflect that the topic is no longer considered relevant as with higher proportion of female doctors the proportion of female leaders increases and results in an equitable representation of women? In the 1980’ies equal opportunity committees and committees on women’s health emerged. As a co-founder of such committees, I recall how initiatives very often were met with certain ridicule. At an anecdotal level the 100- year anniversary for the first Danish female physician was celebrated with an all-female issue of the journal of the Danish Medical Association. But the male editors were deeply concerned for the scientific quality having women solely responsible for the issue.
Women encounter particular barriers on the way up, some related to structural, some to organisational, and others to personal factors. Structurally, impediments may be part of the medical hierarchical system, where men have an opportunity to progress whereas women touch the “glass ceiling” and progress no further.
Organisationally males seem better to negotiate special rewards for services thus ending up with a higher salary. A further barrier relates to extended maternity leave politics that may be a disadvantage if used to push women aside.
Personally, female physicians are caught in the complex web of family commitments, emotional caretaking, and stress factors, but also a wish for influence and academic achievement. Where both partners have similar education, women are more likely even today to prioritize family commitment.
And do women to the same extent want to achieve leadership positions? Or are they more inclined towards person-centred areas while men are more result oriented.
A way forward
According to EU commissioner Viviane Reding there are 4 reasons to break the glass ceiling for female leadership.
First an economic reason. With more women in the workforce more persons are part of the labour market. Secondly, increasing female leadership positions increase the economic capacity of the organisation. Thirdly, female quota are introduced in some countries as a possible mean to get more women in leadership positions, and finally the European population is overall in favour of gender equality believing that both sexes possess the same leadership abilities. Modern management focuses on leadership being a role model and creating an atmosphere of trust and respect and communicating values– all areas where women are strong.
Finally a few clues to ponder: Find a trustworthy mentor who is willing to spend time with you; become part of a team – in an area of your interest – but do not be too choosy; find a support group of other female colleagues; and do not take things too personally but face challenges with good humour and choose your fights carefully as there may be many. □