Utilizing mentorship to achieve equity in leadership

Academic medicine and the health care industry


Achieving equity in leadership in academic medicine and the health care industry doesn’t have to be a pipe dream. There are clear, actionable steps that will lead us there.

The benefits of diversity are numerous and well documented. Diversity brings competitive advantage to organizations and strength to teams. With academic health centers (AHCs) facing continual stressors while at the same time being significant financial contributors to – and anchors in – their communities, ensuring their high performance is critical to society as a whole. To grow, thrive, and be ethical examples to their communities, health centers need the strongest and most innovative leaders who are reflective of the communities that they serve. This means more diversity in leadership positions.

When we look at the facts of the gender makeup of academic medicine and the health care industry, we can clearly see inequity – only 22% of medical school full professors, 18% of medical school department chairs, and 17% of medical school deans are women. Note that it has taken 50 years to get from 0 women deans to the 25 women deans who are now in this role. Only 28% of full and associate professors and 21% of department chairs are nonwhite. In the health care industry, only 13% of CEOs are women. The pace toward equity has been excruciatingly slow, and it’s not only women and underrepresented minorities who lose, but also the AHCs and their communities.

So how do we reach equity? Mentorship is a key pathway to this goal. In a session at Hospital Medicine 2019 (HM19), “What Mentorship Has Meant To Me (And What It Can Do For You): High Impact Stories from Leaders in Hospital Medicine,” fellow panelists and I outlined how mentorship can positively affect your career, define the qualities of effective mentors and mentees, describe the difference between mentorship and sponsorship, and explained how to navigate common pitfalls in mentor-mentee relationships.

We spoke about the responsibility the mentee has in the relationship and the need to “manage up,” a term borrowed from the corporate world, where the mentee takes responsibility for his or her part in the relationship and takes a leadership role in the relationship. The mentee must be an “active participant” in the relationship for the relationship to be successful. We hope that attendees at the session took some key points back to their institutions to open dialogue on strategies to achieve equity through building mentoring relationships.

When I look back on my time in residency and fellowship, I recognize that I was surrounded by people who offered guidance and advice. But once I became a faculty member, that guidance was less apparent, and I struggled in the first few years. It wasn’t until I attended a conference on peer mentoring that I recognized that I didn’t just need a didactic mentor, but that I needed a portfolio of mentors and that I had to take the initiative to actively engage mentorship. So I did, and its effects on my career have been powerful and numerous.

The evidence is there that mentorship can play a major role in advancing careers. Now it is up to the leadership of academic and nonacademic health centers to take the initiative and establish formalized programs in their institutions. We all benefit when we have diversity in leadership – so let’s get there together.

Dr. Spector is executive director, Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine, associate dean of faculty development, Drexel University, Philadelphia.

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