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The Power of Allyship in Facilitating Female Leadership in Healthcare

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During an interview for a job earlier in my career, a man once asked me if I was married. When I said yes, he followed up with, “Does your husband work?” I told him he was a physician. “Well then,” he replied, “it doesn’t really matter how much money you make, because you have a husband who’s bringing home money as well.”

Stories like these, of course, are unfortunately far from atypical — in healthcare and the workforce more broadly. But medicine is particularly hierarchal, and COVID-19 has only exacerbated longstanding gender bias and inequities. Women doctors earn an estimated $2 million less than men over the course of their careers. Advancement is tougher, too: women in academic centers are 38% less likely to be promoted to full professor than men. 

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There’s a reason that only 40% of executive positions in the healthcare industry are held by women, despite making up 80% of the workforce. These inequities do not exist because women are not ambitious or hard working, but because of implicit and explicit biases that present barriers pervasive within a flawed healthcare infrastructure. 

Leadership roles are pivotal to closing the gender gap, especially now, when the pandemic seems to have widened it beyond repair and workforce shortages continue to destabilize our industry. Male allyship is a strategic tool that can help address these systemic issues. 

Mentorship and Sponsorship 

Across all specialties in medicine, women report far less mentorship and sponsoring than men. In fact, 60% of men say they feel uncomfortable having interactions in the workplace with women. But as Dr. W. Brad Johnson, co-author of “Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace” puts it: 

“Exposure therapy is the only treatment. More coffees, more lunches, more mentoring conversations is really the only solution to this.”

Male allyship training can help men feel more comfortable mentoring and sponsoring women and provide them with the tools they need to be most effective. In doing so, women in medicine can gain more visibility and acquire new leadership opportunities. They can also be better recognized and rewarded for their work. As a review of academic literature on the topic summarizes, mentorship, “offers a means to further enhance workforce performance and engagement, promote learning opportunities and encourage multidisciplinary collaboration.”

Formalizing these efforts can help, too. For instance, a policy at J.P. Morgan asked men to take a “30-5-1” pledge because the company was not retaining and promoting enough women. The 36-minutes-a-week pledge involved 30 minutes having mentoring conversations with a junior woman, five minutes pointing out a woman's achievement or congratulating her, and one minute telling everyone else, especially senior leadership. 

Implement System-Wide Inclusive Policies 

Male allyship training and education can help men realize that closing gender gaps isn’t a women’s issue but a systemic one. With this awareness in mind, they can take a number of practical and transparent inclusive actions that benefit women at their organizations and help them attain leadership roles. Some of these include: 

  • Ensuring promotion and tenure committees are factoring in COVID-related disruptions, which disproportionately impact women, and recognizing the potential for differential approaches based on gender disparities. 
  • Eliminating the “manels:” one study found, for instance, that women only accounted for 30% of all academic conference speakers and that nearly 40% of panels were “manels” comprised entirely of men.  
  • Moderating discussions with women about inclusivity and broader leadership initiatives.
  • Deliberately sponsoring women for publishing, grant, speaking, leadership training and editorial opportunities.
  • Advocating for pay equity.
  • Establishing regular reviews around inclusivity with standardized questions.

Identify Individual Bias and Hold Others Accountable 

Unconscious and implicit biases amplify women’s feelings of isolation, marginalization, and discomfort, which leads to burnout and decreased job satisfaction. Meanwhile, sexual harassment is “rampant” in healthcare. 

Male allyship can help here, too. As Dr. Johnson explains, men can hold others accountable through a “watchdog” set of skills when they hear a sexist comment. “If I’m a guy at that moment, I can just say, ‘Ouch!’ The beauty of this is that it buys me another two or three seconds when every head in the room turns toward me, and then I can explain what didn't land the right way.”

The skills taught at allyship programs help men develop these types of skills, including generous and spacious listening, trust building and disrupting bias and sexism. With the right program, they can do so in a safe, close-knit community where they can try out these skillsets and engage in challenging conversations around gender. 

A More Equitable Future 

Active and engaged male allyship works. Research shows, after all, that when men are deliberately engaged in gender-inclusion programs, 96% of women in those organizations perceive real progress in gender equality, compared with only 30% of women in organizations without strong male engagement. 

And it’s not just the right thing to do. A 2021 McKinsey and LeanIn.org report found that at all levels of management, women were better leaders, more consistently supporting employees, and stronger champions of diversity and inclusion. What’s more, organizations with women in senior leadership roles are also more profitable. 

So, what are you waiting for? With the effects of the pandemic having set back the advancement of women in medicine, now is the time for men to step up. 

About the Author 

Dr. Shikha Jain is the founder of Women in Medicine® and assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology at the University of Illinois Cancer Center.


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