On a recent warm fall day, hundreds of female physicians from all of the New York Presbyterian Hospital (NYP) campuses in New York City convened for the first time at the New York Academy of Medicine to discuss the overt and covert benefits and challenges of being a female physician in academia. This was not a meeting that encouraged or even provided a platform for whining or preaching to the choir. Instead, every session provided tangible steps the participants could take to overcome barriers prevalent among female physicians while also offering nuggets of inspiration.
Convening with such a homogenous group was a first for many including the participants and the organizers—three female surgeons, including Rache Simmons of Weill Cornell Medicine; Christine Rohde of Columbia Presbyterian and Laura Forese, executive vice president and chief operating officer of NYP. As an organizer (Rache Simmons) and an invited guest (Ruth Gotian), we decided to unveil what happens behind the curtain when female physicians get together.
This meeting commenced differently right from the start. At the registration desk, we received a program; a gift bag (which made us feel special); and a notepad and pen. We were asked to write our own name tag. Surprisingly, over 90 percent of the participants scribbled solely their first and last name—no degrees, titles, departments or campus affiliations. Our equal footing was apparent from the second we adorned our name tags, and removing the implied power dynamic in the room set the stage for collaboration and open dialogue.
Most networking at conferences occurs during informal sessions, and this was no exception. After checking in, everyone entered a room where a continental buffet breakfast materialized and networking ensued with the first cup of coffee. Dyads and triads of people filled the space. As soon as someone joined a small group to greet someone they knew, they were automatically introduced to the other members of that group.
It was a cadence that repeated itself throughout the day. Never was a person left awkwardly standing, waiting to be introduced. People who ordinarily would not have the opportunity to cross paths were exchanging stories and contact information. Cardiothoracic surgeons were talking with dermatologists, while emergency department physicians were talking with deans and division chiefs. Rank was inconsequential as our conversations turned to shared passions, concerns and goals.
There was so much to learn, and every breakout room was buzzing with excitement. What surprised us most was that at exactly the time each session was to start, without any prompting, every room went silent as if on cue. This was another cadence that repeated at the start of every breakout session. There was an unspoken acknowledgement that the speaker was going to offer something worthwhile and that we shouldn’t waste a precious minute.
Physicians are scientists by nature and training, so it was not surprising that every session offered data to set the stage. Everything from how poorly many women negotiate, with lifetime financial consequences, to the challenges women face with getting promoted, was laid out with graphs and trend lines. These numbers served as a launching point for sessions on how to actively and effectively deal with the woes that disproportionately affect women. Participants learned how to overcome some of these challenges with tips on how to negotiate effectively, with special emphasis on which issues to focus on during a negotiation, how to effectively combat imposter syndrome, and a myriad of other topics that reflect how women are disempowered.
Participants also learned how to elevate their careers, getting specific pointers on how to brand and market themselves. This was a perfect transition to the advice offered on what one needs in order to get promoted in academia. The merits of finding and being a mentor were underscored repeatedly, as studies have shown that mentors can help propel a person’s career. These career development tips were coupled with information on how to prepare for retirement.
Perhaps it is imposter syndrome, or the need to craft a perfectly worded question, that leads to the well-documented fact that women do not ask questions in an open forum at nearly the same rate as their male counterparts. But when the audience is homogenous as it was at this symposium, this barrier is removed. Questions flowed, and both speakers and audience members asked for and shared their perspectives. People responded by building off the ideas of others, and rarely were speakers interrupted.
Recognizing that nearly every person in the room had different variations of the same experiences was both reassuring and disheartening. Hearing keynote speaker Ursula Burns, the former CEO of Xerox, share her experiences underscored that these issues are not singular to health care. Every session became a sisterhood as people tried to help each other.
It was not unusual for someone to stand at the end of a session, offer to help others and publicly share opportunities they have access to and are willing to share. People from different departments and campuses, who ordinarily would not cross paths, are now members of a larger community of practice, an affinity group where every person is a source of knowledge and support. These conversations and networking continued during every break and lingered on long after the meeting was over.
We returned to our offices the next day with a renewed sense of belonging and a collaborative energy. This was an inaugural symposium, but the momentum it spurred motivated the organizers to make this an annual event. By sharing our collective experience, we hope that other institutions might consider holding a similar event, thereby giving female physicians the tools and support to help them navigate the promotion process and unclog the bottleneck of female physicians who feel disempowered.