More women leaders needed in medicine

Mamta Gautam, MD

Despite increasing numbers of women in medicine, they continue to be underrepresented in executive and academic leadership positions. Women bring many attributes and strengths to leadership roles, and research shows there is advantage to gender diversity in leadership. Attempts are being made to understand why there is such a lack of women leaders in medicine, and steps are being taken to support and increase female leadership. Harnessing the potential of all medical leaders will help to ensure successful health care transformation and optimal patient care.


Women are changing the face of our medical profession. There are more women in medical school and more women clinicians than ever before. However, despite these increasing numbers, women continue to be underrepresented in executive and academic leadership positions in medicine in Canada. Although women make up 50–60% of medical school graduates, only 13% of medical department heads across the country are women. It was not until after 175 years of medical history that Canada’s first female dean of medicine was appointed in 1999.


Contribution of women leaders


Women bring many attributes and strengths to leadership roles. They have been identified as offering a higher level of emotional intelligence, better communication skills, greater collaborative interaction, more team initiatives and a healthier work–life balance in the workplace. Research on women in leadership positions reveals that there is advantage in gender diversity in leadership (Troiano 2013). Top


In Unlocking the Full Potential of Women at Work, Joanna Barsh and Lareina Yee (2012) demonstrate how gender diversity creates open, accepting, inspiring cultures; generates stronger business results, and fuels creativity and innovation. According to Daniel Goleman (1998), business leaders are no longer being defined by their IQ or even their technical skills. It is their emotional intelligence skills that make the difference; in top leadership positions, over 80% of the difference in performance can be attributed to emotional competence.


Several studies have shown that companies with few or no women in leadership positions rob themselves of a competitive edge. In a study of 279 companies, Desvaux et al.  (2010) found that those in the top quartile in terms of women in top management positions exceed companies with no women in top management by 41% for average return on investment and by 56% for operating results. Catalyst reported a study demonstrating a 53% higher return on equity among Fortune 500 companies with a higher proportion of female board directors (Carter and Wagner 2007). Top


Why the lack of women leaders in medicine?


Why, then, are there disproportionately fewer women leaders in medicine? Several contributing factors have been identified as obstacles to advancement of women in academic medicine (Buckley et al. 2000, Richman et al. 2001, Yedidia and Bickel 2001, Bickel et al. 2002):


  • Male-oriented institutional    culture or practices favouring   traditional gender roles
  • Gender difference whereby women may  undervalue leadership roles  or have lower ambitions, expectations and self- confidence than their male colleagues
  • Lack of mentorship of junior physicians
  • Lack of leadership training
  • Voluntary career interruptions


These are all also applicable to non-academic areas of medicine, although specific data for these fields is lacking.


Dr. Virginia Roth (2011), director of physician leadership development and physician engagement at the Ottawa Hospital, undertook to study the reasons behind the dearth of women leaders as part of her master of business administration thesis work. Her key finding was that many women physicians exclude themselves from leadership positions because they perceive the cost as too high compared with the potential benefits. The women physicians she interviewed placed a premium on their time, family contribution, satisfaction outside work and a collaborative (rather than competitive) working environment. They viewed these priorities as incompatible with leadership roles as they are currently structured.


Steps to increase female physician leadership


Although the Ottawa Hospital has many of the ideal characteristics for success — strong senior management support for and nurturing of female physician leaders and female physicians who are willing to drive change — Dr. Roth identified and is taking further steps to increase female physician leadership. These include articulating guiding principles and an inspiring definition of leadership; identifying potential leaders; mentoring and training leaders, and recognizing and supporting leaders.

The Canadian Medical Association is addressing the training of women leaders through its Physician Management Institute (PMI). The highly popular PMI course, Leadership for Medical Women: Strengthening Your Leadership Capacity, is geared toward helping women in medicine Top


  •  Identify what influences leadership and recognize bothinternal and external factors affecting the career progression of medical women today
  •  Explore the leadership direction that resonates most strongly with them
  •  Leverage their natural strengths to engage others more  effectively and address factors that may be limiting success
  • Identify opportunities to drive and support female physician leadership in our complex health care system


The Federation of Medical Women of Canada (FMWC) has long been an organization committed to the development of women physicians and the well-being of all women. Associated with the Medical Women International Association, it supports the development of women leaders in medicine by offering educational opportunities; creating networking opportunities at the local, national and international levels; providing a leadership mentoring program, and ensuring a recognized voice for women in medicine. Top


In fact, the theme of the next Annual General Meeting of the FMWC (Sept. 19-21, 2014, Vancouver) is Women as Medical Leaders: Empowered, Engaged, Extraordinary. It will feature key women leaders in medicine in Canada sharing the lessons they have learned through plenary presentations, thought-provoking panel discussions and workshops to hone leadership skills, in addition to its usual medical practice updates. As one member stated, “The FMWC has become a stepping stone in leadership development for women.”


It is encouraging to see such efforts being made to increase the number of women leaders in medicine. Working together with our male colleagues, we can harness the potential of all medical leaders to lead health care transformation in this country and achieve optimal and sustainable health care for our patients. Top



Mamta Gautam, MD, MBA, FRCPC, CCPE, CPDC is a psychiatrist, and the president of PEAK MD, Ottawa, Ont. She is the president-elect of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada.


Correspondence to:



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Yedidia MJ, Bickel J. Why aren’t there more women leaders in academic medicine? The views of clinical department chairs. Acad Med 2001;76(5):453-65.