Female physicians face persistent challenges, including pay scale inequities, discrimination and an imbalance between responsibilities at work and home. The number of female physicians entering the workforce is growing – today, women represent 50% of medical students. Yet, they report less control over their day-to-day work, lower compensation, greater strain in the work-home integration and are more likely to report burnout than their male colleagues. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics, in collaboration with the American Academy of Family Physicians, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American College of Physicians, American Psychiatric Association, and American Hospital Association, developed the Women’s Wellness through Equity and Leadership project (WEL) to help improve organizational structures and build individual skills of female physicians.

Fan Tait, MD, FAAP, chief medical officer of the American Academy of Pediatrics, brings the challenges female physicians face to the forefront and highlights the pressing need to support them as they navigate our health care system.

Q. Why is WEL important to helping improve leadership and well-being for female physicians?

The purpose of WEL is to contribute to healthier, more equitable work experiences for female physicians. In order to foster change in both organizational structures and individual skills, a WEL Steering Committee was convened with representatives from six leading health care organizations.

At an individual level, WEL seeks to empower female physicians to build cross-specialty relationships critical to addressing the myriad of issues they face. An 18-women cohort was recruited across the six partner organizations, with their initial charge being to establish their Indelible Marks, the impact they aim to leave on the field of medicine. The WEL project supports these Indelible Marks with a network and education tailored to implementation of their goals. All 18 have made remarkable progress toward their Indelible Marks, further advancing equity and wellness for all female physicians.

Q. How is the program currently supporting female physicians?

The WEL Steering Committee meets regularly to share organizational updates, discuss items pertinent to promoting change for female physicians and discuss continued progress of the WEL cohort. The WEL Steering Committee developed a structured curriculum focused on equipping female physicians with the necessary knowledge, skills, strategies and relationships needed to create change in their own areas of practice.
We have numerous examples of changes led by the WEL program. Many of our participants have reported a renewed or even changed focus on their career goals resulting in seeking different leadership positions or negotiating new opportunities in their current institution. Additionally, a few of our members have elected to build their own initiatives. For example, Tammy Lin, MD launched Medicine in Motion: Advancing Medicine through Equity – which convenes practicing and future physicians to tackle issues related to diversity and inclusion, well-being, leadership and gender equality.

Q. How can the health care system better support female physicians in addressing issues related to gender inequality and burnout?

Inequitable work environments and physician burnout are interconnected in the experiences of our female physicians. Women in medicine face workplace challenges, such as gender bias and discrimination and imposter syndrome. These experiences are not indictive of an individual but rather organizational-level issues related to bias, inequities and organizational culture.
The health care system can support female physicians in numerous ways. First, organizations must actively recruit and promote female physicians to leadership positions. In addition, our health care system must face the implicit bias with education and accountability. We can start with routine assessments of compensation policies, access to universal family and medical leave and flexible work environments.

Q. How are you envisioning the future of WEL?

We envision continued collaboration and expansion of this learning collaborative model. Our hope is that as we continue to advocate for female physicians, the issues they face will be addressed effectively so that they are able to deliver the best quality care for their patients. We’ve already started to see successes, with several of our participants reporting a new sense of leadership they are implementing into their practices today. We can attest that fostering a community of empowerment is crucial to reverse the higher rates of burnout among female physicians. However, we need stakeholders, such as policy makers, to continue to push for initiatives that will continue to propel our female colleagues forward.