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Friday Oct 09, 2015

Leadership Gives Female Physicians More Control of Career Path

I've worn a lot of hats in my nearly three decades as a family physician. I've been an associate residency program director, founded a health care consulting firm, worked in a federally qualified health center, advised my state's governor as physician general and served as a health correspondent for the region's NBC affiliate -- all while functioning as a family physician and putting our broad training to work.

I never made my gender an issue in any of those jobs, but in my newest role -- president of the AAFP -- I may have underestimated how important it is to some. During our recent Congress of Delegates  -- and in my year as president-elect -- a significant number of our female members told me they were inspired to see a woman in my position. These are women who want to make a difference, feel they can be leaders and are seeking opportunities for growth. Fortunately, leadership isn't closed to them at the AAFP. There are five women on our Board of Directors. Three of the Academy's seven commissions were chaired by women this past year. Women also play important leadership roles in our state chapters and at the National Conference of Constituency Leaders.

I received the President's Medal during my installation at the recent Congress of Delegates in Denver.

I am only the third female president in the long history of the AAFP, but women in leadership is a trend that is growing in family medicine. Forty-two percent of our active members are women, and the numbers are even higher among our younger members, with women accounting for 55 percent of our residents and 56 percent of new physician members.

Forty years ago, there were a little more than 35,000 female physicians in the entire country. Today, the number has swelled to more than 321,000, and women represent nearly one-third of the U.S. physician workforce.

Medscape recently surveyed more than 3,200 female physicians(www.medscape.com), and what they had to say about leadership, career satisfaction and work-life balance was interesting. (It's worth noting that 15 percent of respondents were family physicians.)

More than half the women said they hold at least one leadership position. Forty-two percent were leaders in their practice, 12 percent were leaders in academic departments, and 12 percent were leaders in a professional organization.

Although we've made progress, there are still notable gaps. For example, none of the respondents were deans or vice deans. And I'm clearly in the minority, because only 4 percent were presidents of professional organizations.

Survey participants were asked why they sought leadership roles, and the No. 1 answer leaders gave was to be a positive influence (70 percent), followed by a desire to make change (68 percent). Those are great answers, but the response that resonated with me was from the 53 percent of female leaders who said it was because they want to shape their own path.

When I get frustrated in my practice with my clunky electronic health records system, meaningful use or any of the other challenges we face, I think about the work we're doing as an Academy, and I know it won't always be this way. Although we may be frustrated by our circumstances, we can use that as motivation to be active agents of change. We can use our stories of adversity -- both our own and those of our patients -- to make good things happen through advocacy.

When we are in control, things are better at home and work. Is it a perfect process? Absolutely not, but doing something about our problems improves situations for ourselves and our patients.

The women surveyed (90 percent of those who identified as leaders and 86 percent of nonleaders) agreed that it is important for women to be involved in leadership. But they diverged on whether or not it was an important personal goal, with 76 percent of leaders saying it was important to them compared with 42 percent of nonleaders.

The most common reason cited for not getting involved was time constraints. Interestingly, when the women were asked if they were happy with their careers and personal lives, leaders were more likely to be professionally satisfied and had similar responses to those of nonleaders about personal life satisfaction despite the added demands on their time.

Of course, timing is everything. I'm the first mom to serve as Academy president, but my daughters are both in their 20s. It's important to consider not only what you can do but when you can do it.

Women who were not in leadership were asked why they chose not to get involved. Some of the reasons they gave are things we should change, including lack of female mentors and lack of support. As women become a larger percentage of the physician workforce, these barriers become totally surmountable. We must help guide our aspiring young leaders (male and female), and we all need to build our own network of support both within and outside of medicine.

Wanda Filer, M.D., M.B.A., is president of the AAFP.

Posted at 09:52AM Oct 09, 2015 by Wanda Filer, M.D.

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