I came to medical school full of naivety and optimism. Armed with my Hippocratic oath and a freshly ironed white coat, I was to ready to fulfill my dream of becoming a physician. But very quickly, I could feel the cracks forming in my psyche. My school’s regal crest of green and crimson could not protect me from the onslaught of personal opinions. “When are you going to grow out of this ‘doctor phase’ and settle down? “What sort of mom will you be as a surgeon?” “I think there are careers you are better suited for that don’t require so much schooling.”

As these unsolicited sentiments began to accumulate, I started keeping a journal of what I was hearing. It was the only way I could stop perseverating and begin making sense of what I was hearing. I titled my journal “Motivation.”

When I shared my frustration and discouragement with my peers, I realized that I wasn’t alone. In our short time in medicine, my female colleagues and I had each been subject to similar remarks. It was the first time I realized that gender was still an issue in medicine.  

Later that year, my mother gave me a necklace inscribed with three simple words, “Be the change,” and since that moment I haven’t taken it off. For the last three years, I have strived to change this statistic: Women have represented roughly half of medical school matriculants for the last 20 years but account for only 22 percent of full professors, and 16 percent of deans and department chairs in U.S. medical schools. These data reveal that the number of talented women in medicine is not the problem, but rather that there is a gap in effective promotion and advancement.

To a person who values justice and equity, these data are disturbing. There is also a wealth of data showing that organizational diversity not only benefits the bottom line, but also benefits health outcomes. Thus, gender equity in medicine must be of utmost importance. For women to reach leadership roles, they must have visible and recognizable roles in medicine and in the public.

Research across science and medicine shows that women continue to be underrepresented in visible roles. Robyn Klein questioned this discrepancy when she saw that only 13 women were chosen out of 85 invited conference speakers at a neuroimmunology conference. She was told there just weren’t enough highly qualified women in the field. In response, Klein gathered data showing that men and women in neuroimmunology publish at equal rates in high impact journals. In my own work, with Arghavan Salles and colleagues, I have found that across 28 surgical conferences roughly 40 percent of conference panels were all-male (colloquially referred to as “manels”). Despite women making up approximately one fourth of the membership of these societies, 43 percent of the conferences had zero women in plenary speaking roles.

These data highlight how qualified women are being overlooked by conference organizers and are not getting as many opportunities to share their work. As such, women are less likely to be recognized for their academic expertise and subsequently promoted. Having fewer opportunities to share research and expertise limits women’s career advancement opportunities, particularly since appointment and promotion committees use national recognition as a component of academic appointment decisions. 

Through my research studying gender equity in surgery I found a unifying theme: professional networks and visibility matter in promoting equity. Frustrated, I posed this question on Twitter: “How can we as a medical community dispel the myth that ‘there aren’t any qualified women to speak’ as conference speakers and media sources?” A fellow Twitter user replied with a link to the 500 Women Scientists website as an example of the efforts going on in STEM fields to address this issue. I was incredibly inspired by what 500 Women Scientists was doing with their “Request a Woman Scientist” database and vast network of community chapters (called pods) across the world. I saw an opportunity to more intentionally incorporate women in medicine into their impactful platform, so I approached the 500 Women Scientists leadership team with my idea to create a satellite organization: 500 Women in Medicine.

I then approached four of my medical school colleagues with this idea, and they jumped into action without hesitation. They too saw the issues with representation and visibility in medicine and wanted to do something about it. Over the past several months we began defining our organization’s objectives and are closely working with the 500 Women Scientists organization to integrate women physicians into their ongoing initiatives.

The mission of 500 Women in Medicine is to serve society by making medical knowledge and expertise more collaborative, accessible and inclusive. We strive to unite and connect women physicians across the country and around the world, empower women physicians to grow to their full potential in the field of medicine, and to create a platform promoting visibility for women physicians.

Our first big project is to integrate medical disciplines into the existing 500 Women Scientists “Request a Woman Scientist” database. The goal is to create an easily accessible, public database tailored to the health care industry, with the goal of improving visibility for women physicians. It will categorize women in medicine by their education, specialty and experience. This resource will enable anyone—including conference organizers, journalists, researchers, and medical professionals—to quickly and easily look up women physicians and scientists. 

We are also strengthening community amongst women in STEM and medicine. Women in medicine are welcome to join the community chapters (pods) of 500 Women Scientists. Through integrating women physicians into existing pods, we have the tremendous potential to develop a meaningful, cross-disciplinary community of women in science and medicine.

Marian Wright Edelman, an American children’s rights activist, once said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” In order for women physicians to be leaders in academic medicine, they must have a visible platform in the public sphere.

This organization is a culmination of what matters most to me: supporting the advancement of women in medicine. That is how I plan to be the change. By creating an organization centered on increasing visibility and networks, my hope is that members of the media and conference organizers will realize the abundance of women who are top experts in their fields. And for the women physicians across the world looking for resources and community, I hope that 500 Women in Medicine can serve as a hub for information and visibility along their career journeys. By coming together and shining light on the incredible accomplishments of women physicians, we will create meaningful change.