INTERVIEW: Kim Kelly: a strong and unwavering voice for women in leadership
“I appreciate the many opportunities of mentorship that I have received through my work with the AMA. Through AMA support, I have been able to develop my skills as a physician leader and positively affect the health of my community, city, and province.” — Dr. Kimberley Kelly1
To this day, Dr. Kelly does not know who on the Alberta Medical Association (AMA) nominating committee put her name forward, in a closed session in 2015, to sit on the AMA Board of Directors. This was a turning point for her and gave her the opportunity, as an individual, to take a leadership position with the AMA.
“I’ve learned the term is ‘sponsorship’ for this type of endorsement by a leader. It’s essential for our leaders to sponsor women and individuals from other underrepresented groups in order to address the inequity found in medical leadership. To have one person advocate for me behind closed doors and to have that action change the whole trajectory of my career is shocking,” she said in a recent interview. “To me, this illustrates the power of sponsorship.
“You have to promote and support women all along the way,” she says, and women need to learn not to be shy in promoting themselves or asking for leadership roles. “It’s not a behaviour we have been taught.
“If you’re not seeing leadership modeled, it’s hard to imagine yourself in the role,” she adds. “For example, the AMA has had only four female presidents since its creation in 1889. That’s a key point. I feel men have a wide spectrum of leaders they can identify with and emulate. Women have far fewer leaders as role models.
“The AMA was the first health care organization to offer me a leadership position. This came almost 20 years after graduating from medical school. I was not mentored or supported prior to this. In fact, I sought out and created my own leadership opportunities in the education and non-profit sectors as I found few in the health care sector. I discovered that outside of health care, my leadership skills were validated and valued. I also received feedback, which allowed my skills to grow. Surprisingly to me, I have not yet received feedback on my leadership skills within the health care sector.
“I wonder how many talented women leaders we have lost because they grew tired of fighting against the system? Most women have not had mentors, have not been sought out for leadership, and have not received guidance in career development. I personally invested time and money in leadership training. I also spent a lot of time in search of opportunities. If our health care leaders are serious about addressing gender inequity and the lack of diversity and inclusion, resources need to be directed to mentoring, coaching, leadership training, and metrics.
“I think it’s also important for health care leaders to know that, along the way, I was not encouraged but discouraged from entering leadership. Assumptions were made that I was too busy, that my kids were too little, and that my clinical practice wouldn’t allow me the time for a leadership role. I wish I’d been asked these questions rather than assumptions made.”
In addition to sitting on the AMA board, Dr. Kelly is a staff physician at the Alberta Health Services Opioid Dependency Program in Edmonton. She is also an associate clinical professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta. The CBC recently described her as “among the foremost national leaders spearheading efforts to change the culture of medicine to be better for women.”2
Earlier this summer, Dr. Kelly appeared on Dr. Brian Goldman’s White Coat, Black Art radio program to describe how she was sexually harassed as a medical student. In an article published by CBC,2 Dr. Kelly described her initial reluctance to appear on the show because she was worried that if she spoke out, she might lose her credibility to speak on other issues. She was quoted as saying: “I felt there was a big risk that my voice would be silenced.... But it also made me realize, how difficult it is for someone who hasn’t reached the level I’m at to speak up.”
Dr. Kelly has applied to be part of a working group in Alberta to discuss diversity and inclusion across the health care system and to address sexual harassment. With seven other collaborators, she has applied to the Canadian Medical Association for a Community of Interest grant to establish a national virtual network of medical leaders to raise awareness and discuss topics related to gender equity, such as the strengths women physicians bring to the medical community, the advantages of diversity in leadership, the relation between gender discrimination and physician health, and #MeTooMedicine. She is hopeful the community will identify some solutions.
#MeTooMedicine is a hashtag used on Twitter by women physicians to share experiences about sexual harassment and abuse. “I think the #MeTooMedicine movement has been extremely important” she says. With women making up more than half of medical school classes for 20 years now, there should be more women leaders than there are,” Dr. Kelly says, indicating that factors other than numbers have been impeding women from taking leadership positions. “I think #MeTooMedicine has allowed women to have a stronger voice and to be heard.”
On social media — especially Twitter — Dr. Kelly is a strong and unwavering voice in support of the #MeTooMedicine movements and the need for more women physicians to hold leadership positions. In a way she is the personification of a recent New England Journal of Medicine article3 that discusses the growing presence of women physicians on social media and the potential for such platforms to support women physicians and help them overcome traditional barriers to professional development.
Dr. Kelly says Canadian women physicians are using social media to voice decades of frustration. Although some may see their comments as reflecting anger or unhappiness, she says, “I see it as empowerment. It’s sharing stories. It’s positive. It’s a place you can go to receive support and advice.”
“I know the excitement and energy behind the comments,” Dr. Kelly says. Because there are so few women in leadership positions, social media was the first place she discovered aligned opinions expressed and broader perspectives discussed.
“I have learned a lot from other women leaders on social media and from the research on gender inequity in medicine that gets posted. I was recently unsuccessful in a leadership position that I applied for. A year ago, I would have thought I was an inferior candidate. With my new knowledge and support, I now believe I am an excellent candidate but am aware that I also face biases and other barriers that slow my progression. It’s frustrating, but knowing the bigger picture and root causes has actually been empowering. I now feel that by discussing my experiences of inequity I can help advocate for improvements in our system.”
Having evidence to back up charges of systemic gender inequities has been an important factor driving change. “It’s so much easier to go to a meeting and not just voice my experience and my female colleagues’ experiences but to show that the data that indicate this is significant.” The next step, she believes, is for organizations to determine their own metrics. “You can’t change what you can’t measure.”
When it comes to women seeking leadership positions in medicine, Dr. Kelly says the glass ceiling is still a very real factor. “I’ve experienced the glass ceiling myself and I’ve witnessed it happening to other women who should have progressed to the top but didn’t. That was a wake-up call for me. I realized that my own unconscious biases played a role. It is crucial for me to be aware of my biases, assumptions, and stereotypes when I sit on selection committees.”
But, Dr. Kelly also feels things are changing for the better. “I am excited to see many women entering leadership in medical school and residency.” She sees a gap for women physicians in mid-career. “I feel many women already have the skills and are ready to lead. They just need to be given the opportunity.”
Addressing the current leadership void with women physicians means first raising awareness of the issue and providing the evidence to document it. “I still don’t think the majority of physicians know or accept there is a problem.” Medical organizations must acknowledge the problem and this will take both individual and organizational courage, Dr. Kelly says.
“Processes then need to be established to make improvements. It will take time but positive change is upon us.”