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Women in Pathology

Credit: Washington University School of Medicine

There are literally decades of data showing that diversity in the workplace improves creativity, productivity, problem solving, innovation, and teamwork. Why is it, then, that in the US women still comprise less than 25 percent of medical school deans, department chairs and full professors? The lack of female mentorship and leadership role models is almost certainly a contributing factor – and it’s preventing women from maximizing their performance in the workplace. Here I present my blueprint for redressing the balance.

1. Eliminate blind spots

Recently, I was in a leadership meeting where it was determined that our annual (mandatory) faculty retreat would be held 8 am–5 pm on a Saturday. This is a perfect example of how lack of diversity can create blind spots. None of the organizers with leadership roles had small children. Thus, they did not consider how this would impact families with young children or responsibilities outside the workplace. Holding important work events outside of normal working hours unfairly biases people with childcare, eldercare, or other household responsibilities. This bias falls disproportionately on women. A study has shown that female job candidates who disclose that they are mothers and list child-related activities on their CV are hired less frequently, paid less, and given fewer days off than women with the same CV without such disclosures (1). Male candidates with the same CV were seen as more committed to their jobs and paid more than the women. Diversity in leadership roles leads to more equity and inclusion. To build successful long-lasting teams, we need to create a workplace that fosters work–life balance for all, and ensure leadership teams are not blind to the needs of their employees.

2. Show the way

Imagine trying to nurture a great baseball player without ever being able to show someone how a great baseball player performs. The same is true for leadership. We watch and we learn. Certainly, a good leader is a good leader – and everyone can learn from that, regardless of sex or gender. Yet, experience has shown me that men and women often lead differently, and it is important for people to observe those different leadership styles. For example, women leaders are more likely than men to share power and information, encourage participation, and enhance other people’s work. In addition, since women still hold a disproportionate percentage of household duties, it can be inspiring to observe how successful women juggle their duties. Female role models and leaders are needed to let women see what they can be.

3. Expand social and political capital

The network and experiences that an individual brings to the workplace are shaped by the social circles in which they travel – both inside and outside of work. These circles are, of course, influenced by things like gender, race, and religion. We have all heard the expression “it is not what you know, but who you know.” A diverse team has a larger network of colleagues, more innovative ideas, and a larger skill set to draw from. Interestingly, when it comes to building relationships and networking, men tend to focus on the short-term need, whereas women nurture long-term connections. The latter can lead to very strong social and political capital that teams can benefit from.

4. Improve negotiations

The ability to negotiate is a key skill set for any leader; however, there are whole books written about how women don’t negotiate (2). For a long time, I thought that meant that women were not good at negotiation. It turns out women are actually fantastic at negotiating for others; however, they tend not to negotiate for themselves. Women’s capacity for empathy, active listening, and problem solving make them well positioned to excel at negotiation. They advocate for others and focus on building relationships and trust more frequently than men. Studies have shown that men tend to focus on getting the best deal, while women work to avoid impasses (3). The addition of female leaders to a team can provide diversity and innovation to important negotiations.

What team would not want to improve performance by eliminating blind spots and expanding its ability to attain assets? Increasing the number of female mentors and leaders seems like common sense to me!

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  1. SJ Correll et al. “Getting a job: is there a motherhood penalty?”. Am J Sociology, 112, 5, (2007).
  2. L Babcock, S Dunbrooke. “Women don’t ask”. Princeton University Press, 2021.
  3. A Ma et al. “Asking for less (but receiving more): Women avoid impasses and outperform men when negotiators have weak alternatives”. J Appl Psychol, [Online ahead of print] (2023). PMID: 37824267
About the Author
Ann M. Gronowski

Co-Division Chief of Laboratory and Genomic Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, Missouri, USA

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