If you believe the best should lead, include women and underrepresented minorities

By | November 13, 2018

I am writing this from the perspective of a woman physician in academic medicine. I am a mid-career cardiac anesthesiologist who works in several national organizations and serve on various committees and boards. I have learned a lot from serving in national medical societies, made great friends this way, and been able to feel a sense of accomplishment in being a part of change within my specialty.

That is why I am writing this blog. Not to cast blame within our organizations, but because I believe being involved in medical societies is imperative to innovation in medicine. I believe involving women and underrepresented minorities (URMs)at every level of organization leadership is crucial to the advancement of our societies.

If one studies the business literature, he will understand there is direct relationship between diversity in leadership (the number of women and URMs) and the success of a companies’ bottom line. Diversity in people = diversity in thoughts, constructive and creative ideas, innovation, and strategy. The industry sector knows this, and in many ways, are far ahead of organized medicine.

In other words, when you gather a group of people for a common mission who are different, you are more likely to have better outcomes after leaving the meeting room than you are if everyone around the table is similar.

Isn’t that what we want?

Better outcomes?

So now comes the point where I am going to share some anecdotes.

Are they true? Yes.

Did they happen to me and likely happen to other women? Yes.

Will they make some of you stop reading? Maybe, but I hope not.

Especially if you are man who participates in medical societies or serves in a leadership position. Why?

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Because you could make a difference in the future of your organization.

Imagine this:

I am asked to serve on a committee within an organization. I am excited, honored, nervous, and eager. I do my homework and review the current committee roster. I gulp.

I am the only woman.

OK, no problem. I am used to this.

I study the roster to get to know the colleagues I am serving with so I can understand where they are coming from and their interests.

I arrive at the hotel the night before the meeting and as I am checking in, I see the majority of the committee having drinks in the hotel lobby.

It’s the meeting before the meeting; I didn’t get the memo.

I smile, wave and head to my hotel room.

I arrive at the committee meeting the next morning, and while on time, I am one of the last to arrive. There’s laughter and joking and friendly conversations going on around the table. While I am sure they would include me if I knew what they were referring to, I don’t.

I hope we start soon, as I am already feeling like the new kid.

I listen and study the committee members during the meeting to help me in the future. At one point, I decide to speak up. I pitch my thoughts on the direction of an initiative, and I am interrupted, and the conversation changes direction.

If I challenge the interruption, I risk alienation and being labeled as difficult.

I stay silent. I am, after all, the only woman. I am thankful to be here.

It means a lot to me to be here, and I need to be strategic in when I speak, so I can show them the value of having women in key positions.

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I speak up again. My idea is well liked … and then suddenly it is hijacked by one of the more senior committee members. Within 5 minutes my idea has become his idea. The committee likes it.

I tell myself that is OK. In the end, my idea will invoke change to better our society, and possible medicine. Even though I won’t get credit, I know who originated the idea.

The committee ends and I overhear the members making dinner plans. I am not invited, but I understand this is fairly common.

It is likely awkward to invite me, so I smile as one of the more senior member approaches me. He welcomes me and tells me he is glad I am there. He tells me“don’t be afraid to speak up more.” I thank him and laugh internally.

If he only knew how women in leadership positions must be extremely strategic in when they speak, how they deliver their message, and how they argue points.

We only have so many opportunities, and we know this. We can’t blow it. How we present ourselves and our ideas may mean success for failure for another woman to be added to the committee. It is a pressure I am not sure they understand or have experienced.

If you know me, you know I have very little problem speaking up. In fact, most colleagues who serve with me on committees will tell you I often pitch ideas, opinions, and comments on key issues to the group without holding back.

What they don’t know is that as often the only woman, when I speak I am strategic. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it fails.

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If I walk into a meeting and a third of the committee are women, or minorities, I sigh with a sense of relief. I am more likely to speak freely, more openly, and be more open. I have realized this about myself.


Not because I think the women or URMs will agree with me, but because I know that the men in this room choose women/URMs to serve with, and therefore they must value and appreciate women’s opinions.

Do you see it? Do you get it?

So here is the thing: if you want healthy and successful societies, the best talent and expertise should be on committees, in leadership, and at the helm.

Regardless of what you think of gender equity, if you are a leader in a society, chances are you would likely agree with that statement.

So then: Where are the women and URMs?

What is the message you are saying if they aren’t there?

If you believe the best should lead, include women and URMs.

When they walk into the room, don’t let them be the only one.

You can make a difference.

I, for one, am counting on you.

Sasha K. Shillcutt is an anesthesiologist who blogs at Brave Enough.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com