When you consider that 58% of the U.S. civilian workforce is female, it stands to reason that a similar percentage of female physicians in our country might exist. That reasoning would be incorrect, as only 34% of U.S. physicians are female, and only 18% of hospital CEOs are women[i]. These disparities are disappointing, as women are just as accomplished at practicing medicine as their male counterparts. In a comprehensive study of 1.5 million Medicare patients, those treated by female physicians had significantly lower mortality rates and readmission rates when compared with male physicians at the same hospital.
The reasons why the recruitment and hiring of female physicians lag behind men are unclear, but it would appear that there is an unintentional or unconscious bias against them. Studies have shown that women are less likely to be promoted or hired based on their gender, and a 2016 survey of almost 6,000 physicians found that much of the discrimination was specific to mothers. Since it has been established that a gender bias exists, let’s focus on what healthcare administrators can do to remove bias from their recruitment and hiring practices.
Recognize if Bias Exists
One of the first things any administrator can do to determine if bias exists within their hospital or healthcare system is to take a good hard look in the mirror. What is your current ratio of male to female physicians? Consider that 46% of all physicians in training, and 52% of medical students in the U.S. are females, your physician hires within recent years should be more reflective of those ratios. It is easy to have a conversation with those who are doing the recruiting and hiring without it being accusatory. There may be valid reasons why there is a disparity in the genders of your physician staff, but it is always worth having the discussion.
Ensure Internal Policies Don’t Penalize Women
Family leave policies vary by organization, and in some cases, they unintentionally penalize women. While it is harder to track the policies within private companies and hospitals, in academic medicine, university policies only grant an average of eight weeks of paid family leave. Female physicians shouldn’t be in a position of having to be concerned that maternal responsibilities are going to impact their career or standing in the workplace negatively. Policies to support child-rearing, lactation, and other familial responsibilities should be carefully considered. In the long run, family-friendly policies will benefit both male and female physicians, increasing engagement, lessening burnout, and improving retention.
Take Sexual Harassment and Discrimination Seriously
A recent report from the National Academies of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine found that a staggering 40 – 50% of medical students reported experiencing sexual harassment by faculty and colleagues. In addition to sexual harassment from colleagues, women physicians are also more likely to experience harassment from patients. It is believed that the harassment may even be underreported for fear of retaliation, and physician burnout studies show that it is a significant factor for female physicians. Sexual harassment training, while necessary, doesn’t go far enough, and many proactive organizations have implemented online reporting systems to encourage individuals to report incidents and track repeat offenders.
Conduct Bias Prevention Training
Have your recruitment and hiring staff ever had implicit bias training? Even if you don’t believe that gender bias exists within your hiring practices, it is a worthwhile undertaking as a strategy to ensure that bias is recognized if it arises, and also as a means to address it. There are evidence-based programs that help leaders develop strategies to combat bias in hiring, compensation, and promotion practices.
Encourage Formal Mentorship Programs
Having a formal mentoring program will benefit all of your physicians, not just your female staff. Sponsor networking events that encourage physicians to identify potential mentors that they may otherwise never meet. Peer mentoring programs, providing a platform for female physicians at similar career stages to get together, is another incredibly beneficial way to help them navigate issues that are unique to women. Some groups are focused on building skills and networking, while others serve as a collaborative sounding board. Whatever the purpose, it is another easy strategy to implement in support of your female physicians.
As healthcare administrators continue to consider the means to navigate the looming physician shortage, it makes sense to ensure that they are implementing strategies that serve to benefit all of their physicians. Promoting physician engagement and well-being is a critical component of reducing burnout and improving retention. Equally important is rooting out any indication of gender bias and creating an environment where female physicians can thrive based on their skills and abilities.
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