Invisible women: Female doctors and health care leaders are being hidden in plain sight

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Many reasons have been offered to explain the gap between the salaries of male and female physicians and scientists, between their levels of federal funding for research and their academic promotions. One pervasive problem has been overlooked. I call it “the invisible woman” problem.

In reality, female health care professionals are everywhere — women account for approximately 75 percent of hospital employees and health service managers, 50 percent of US medical school graduates, and 40 percent of the faculty of US medical schools. They hold positions at every level — including president, CEO, and other positions in the C-suite. Yet their names, faces, and voices are often not seen or heard.

Take a look, for example, at some of the annually published “best healthcare quotes lists.” Last year, Becker’s Hospital Review published one called “On the record: 50 best healthcare quotes of 2015.” In the list, which was compiled by a woman, almost three-quarters of the quotes by individuals were from men. Although they were listed “in no particular order,” the top four quotes were from men. A similar list by Forbes, “The Most Important Healthcare Quotes of 2015,” included entries from 10 men and two women. Interestingly, the two women were part of a three-person quote that included a man. Thus, no woman was quoted individually with her own voice.

Other examples of the invisible woman are easy to spot. Health care websites — both professional and consumer-oriented — often feature male doctors’ faces, names, credentials, and comments. Professional women and underrepresented minorities are frequently shown in photos but without their names, credentials, or comments, making them virtually unrecognizable and unheard.

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I recently received an e-newsletter from a physicians’ medical society with the subject line, “Why aren’t there more women in science?” The newsletter summarized an article on the need to better support female scientists and linked to it. Just below the article was a call for proposals for scientific presentations at the medical society’s annual conference. The photo that accompanied it was a group of men. It made me wonder why the medical society would highlight the gender gap issue and then turn around and reinforce that problem. Another e-newsletter from a different organization highlighted “just a few of the many rock star faculty” speakers — four men — for a conference, despite the fact that numerous female physicians and scientists would also be speaking.

Highly successful women help power thousands of hospitals, research institutes, nonprofit organizations, and businesses throughout the US and around the world. Next month I’ll be meeting more than 250 of them at the inaugural Harvard Medical School three-day continuing medical education course titled “Career Advancement and Leadership Skills for Women in Healthcare” that I’m directing.

As part of the opening talk, I plan to focus on how to accomplish a goal using a real-life example that will support the course participants in their leadership development. The goal I selected — after numerous discussions with medical professionals and journalists — is improving the visibility and impact of female health care leaders by increasing their representation and position in lists of the best health care quotes of 2016. It’s a small step, to be sure, but one we believe may lead to other steps that support a diverse health care leadership work force and in turn improve health disparities.

Read more: I’m a young black woman. Why do so many people assume I’m not a doctor?

Here’s how we will accomplish this goal: share the problem in a clear manner backed by data; engage stakeholders such as physicians, journalists, and hospital communications directors; participate in a respectful dialogue in many venues including social media (#QuoteHer); and track the outcomes. We will also examine the loud roar on social media over #WhatADoctorLooksLike and #ILookLikeASurgeon.

I hope this exercise will help start conversations about diversity and inclusion among health care professionals, for women, and for other underrepresented groups such as ethnic minorities and individuals with disabilities.

It’s high time that women who have dedicated their careers to medicine are seen and heard. You can quote me on that.

Julie K. Silver, MD, is an associate professor and the associate chair for strategic initiatives in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School and for the Spaulding Rehabilitation Network. Follow the “invisible woman” discussion at #SheLeadsHealthcare and #QuoteHer.