The impact on women is equally distressing, as we see domestic violence rates soar, disproportionate pressure on women to juggle childcare and work, and a greater toll on women-majority workforces like nursing.
However, the pandemic may also have a positive effect among our nation’s historically stratified healthcare workforce. In medicine, where divisions along lines of gender, specialty and race are routinely pronounced, this crisis seems to be closing some of those gaps. Health system leaders should take note of this development—and nurture it.
As the chair of Rush University Medical Center’s Women’s Leadership Council and a member of our Diversity Leadership Council, I am one of the meager 16% of women who sit in leadership positions at academic medical schools nationwide, and I’ve spent my career advocating for greater inclusion of women and underrepresented groups in the workforce. Women make up over half of graduating medical school students and represent a full 80% of the total healthcare workforce, yet account for just 3% of healthcare CEOs, 3% of chief medical officers, and 9% of division chiefs. Moreover, they’re paid less than their male counterparts, receive less in National Institutes of Health grant funding, and are significantly less likely to hold first and senior authorship positions.
But crises have the power to level the playing field. In a March 2 piece for Smithsonian Magazine, the authors write, “The 1918 influenza pandemic … had one silver lining: It helped elevate women in American society socially and financially, providing them more freedom, independence, and a louder voice in the political arena.” While that remains to be seen on a national level, my current experience in leadership is showing me that this transition is now afoot in healthcare.
Recently, during meetings with leaders from across my own organization, I’ve been struck by the number of women spearheading task forces, bringing forth innovative ideas about supply chain and protocols, driving our internal and external communication strategies, and using data to make predictions and plans. Together, our organization is actively seeking the opinions of a range of clinicians, behavioral health professionals, and community health workers, as well as pushing each of us to get creative in team composition and the sourcing of expertise. Real collaboration is on display, not just faint calls for interprofessionalism that many clinicians know all too well. For the first time in my career, I sense an urgency from myself and my colleagues to ensure that every voice is heard.
My experience isn’t unique. As a member of the Carol Emmott Fellowship, a national collaboration of women leaders in medicine, I’ve been heartened to hear similar examples from my counterparts across the country. Women are being welcomed into leadership roles and redefining those roles. The usual judgments about women leaders—from how we look to how we lead—are taking a backseat to matters of substance, like competence, collaboration and outcomes.
We need more of this equitable attention, not just because it’s good for our workforce, but because this kind of inclusion across identities and disciplines is essential to addressing inequity outside the clinic walls.
In the throes of this extraordinary moment in time, I implore my colleagues to hold on to the lessons we’re gleaning. Perhaps it has taken this crisis to shed some bias, invite more people and perspectives to the table, and actually follow through on the insights we’re hearing from historically underrepresented members of our teams.
Now more than ever, we need all hands on deck. And welcoming all hands—all identities—can be part of a new post-pandemic normal.