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Coronavirus: Calling on women in medicine to lead in place

Written by: Neelum T. Aggarwal
Published on: Aug 17, 2020

At the 2019 Women in Medicine (WIM) Summit held in Chicago, I delivered a breakout session encouraging women physicians to expand their leadership skills by actively participating in professional organizations that may not be traditional to their respective areas of specialty. The goal of my presentation was to argue that networking within your specialty (medicine) with colleagues that are similar to you, your goals, career trajectories, will not be enough as you move through your career.

My presentation noted that an engagement that focused on the importance of intentionally building teams with diverse members, learning how different organizations and their “organizational cultures”  approached negotiation skills (work schedules, pay, promotion), and how to deliver clear messaging and direction, would lead to increased resiliency and skill development that one day would be of importance to them in their careers.

No one would have predicted that the COVID-19 pandemic - with its unexpected challenges that  highlighted underlying health, social, economic, and structural disparities - would jolt us to wake up and challenge the very nature of how we practiced medicine and conducted our day to day activities (Lewis, 2020).

Furthermore, no one  would have predicted that the pandemic was also poised to hasten the widening of the gender gap already prevalent in the U.S. health care system and threaten our employment with potential layoffs or reduced hours (van Biesen, 2020).

Physicians across the country have been thrust into a new reality of continuing to provide non-urgent medical care through video and phone telehealth visits, while also organizing (in parallel fashion) virtual classrooms and homeschooling, managing elder care, and negotiating a new normal of maintaining productivity with no separation of work from home life.

This juggling or multi-tasking of activities, once worn as a proud badge has now become more of a never ending, weary management activity that has left both sexes exhausted, but has disproportionately affected women.

Although the impact of the pandemic has been dominated and acutely felt by women, we continue to make 80 cents on the dollar vs. our male colleagues (McCray & Ebanks, 2020).

This is despite the data that reported (prior to the pandemic) 49% of employed women in the United States, including 42% of working mothers, were the family’s main breadwinner (Barrett, 2020).

In addition,  women were also eight times more likely than men to care for sick children or manage their children’s schedules, spend more time caring for sick or elderly family members, and spend time on domestic responsibilities when compared to their male counterparts (Barrett, 2020).

As compared to men, women reported more stress around the COVID-19 pandemic, were more likely to be worried that their income would suffer, and were more concerned that they would have to put themselves at risk due to an inability to afford to stay at home (Gamble, 2020).

Social media posts calling for increased productivity during times of a shutdown and working from home do not take into account these issues, nor the increasingly reported racial and ethnic disparities related to care and responsibilities. However, the decrease in productivity — arguably related to split attention during this pandemic with childcare and domestic responsibilities (Bennet, 2020)— has already been noted by several academic journals.

Editors of journals in several fields have noticed a significant difference in the number of journal submissions from men vs. women, with submissions from men having increased by 50% and those from women staying the same or declining. Data has supported this noting that research productivity from women and mainly women of color has also decreased (compared to men (Patino, N.D.; Viglione, 2020)

This brings me back to the messaging from my WIM breakout session where I challenged my attendees to actively and intentionally become engaged with diverse professional groups to equip them to lead. The messages delivered then - that highlighted the importance of mentorship and sponsorship, the support of women in projects that exemplify collaboration and team science, and advocating for policy that eliminates the tenure clock - are even more relevant now. 

Women need to learn how to engage effectively, build networks, to support themselves and their varied gender roles that will be present in both good and relatively calm environments, in addition to chaotic environments akin to the present COVID-19 era.

COVID-19 has challenged us to critically assess its toll on our workforce, continue to champion robust diversity of thought and action, and focus our energies on teamwork for support  to ensure that we as women physicians do not lose the gains that we have made in medicine. 





Dr. Aggarwal is a cognitive neurologist in the Departments of Neurological Sciences /Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center and Research Director of the Rush Heart Center for Women at Rush University Medical Center. She is the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA).


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Barrett, J. (2020 May 11). Coronavirus Pandemic shift gender roles once and for all? Forbes.

Bennet, J. (2020 March 20). ‘I Feel Like I Have Five Jobs’: Moms Navigate the Pandemic.The New York Times.

Gamble, M. (2020 March 31). Considering a workforce reduction? Don't undo your gains in diversity now. Becker’s Hospital Review.

Lewis, H. (2020 March 19). The coronavirus is a disaster for feminism. The Atlantic.

McCray, C & Ebanks, J.M. (2020 March 30). Equal pay day more important than ever amid COVID-19. The Hill.

Patino, N.A., Faraglia, E., Giannitsarou, C., & Hasna, Z. (N.D.) The unequal effects of COVID-19 on economists' research productivity. Institute for New Economic Thinking: University of Cambridge, Faculty of Economics.

van Biesen, T. (2020 March 26). Coronavirus layoffs could erase many of women’s workplace gains. Catalyst.

Viglione, G. (2020) Are women publishing less during the pandemic? Here’s what the data say. Nature 581, pp. 365-366.


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