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Leading in a Crisis: Why Women Leaders Excel

Written by: Helen Burstin, MD, MPH, MACP
Published on: Aug 27, 2021
This article is published in the 2021 edition of the
Women in Medicine Summit Compendium
Click here to find out more and read the other articles

By Helen Burstin, MD, MPH, MACP

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has been – and continues to be – an unparalleled crisis for our nation and the world, it has provided a remarkable window into gender and leadership.

We have witnessed extraordinary examples of clinical and political leadership as women leaders systematically rose to meet the challenges of this global tragedy.

Though prior research found that women were rated as more effective leaders, the larger gender gap in leadership observed during the pandemic raises the question of whether women function more effectively in a crisis (Zenger and Folkman, 2020). While “charm and confidence” may help leaders achieve top positions, qualities like empathy and humility are critical to leadership (Stillman, 2021).

Recent studies have found that states and countries with female leaders had lower COVID-19 infection and mortality rates (Garikipati, et al, 2020; Sergent and Stajkovic, 2020). While we may not be able to pinpoint the single factor that led to improved outcomes, it has been noted that women leaders: were more likely to have coordinated policy responses; were more willing to make tough calls, such as issuing stay-at-home orders; and expressed more empathy for the well-being of their constituents. One other factor that will likely resonate with female physicians – women leaders were more likely to “know what they don’t know” and listen to trusted experts (Anderson, 2021).

Research has found that women leaders are often brought in as leaders during difficult times (Ryan, et al, 2011). While many of us know about the glass ceiling faced by women who attempt to rise to leadership, the concept of the glass cliff is not as well known. In the business literature, the “glass cliff” is used to describe how female leaders are often brought in as fixers for difficult situations with a low chance of success.

If women are effective leaders, especially in a crisis, why do we see so few women in leadership roles in the medical field? Even as the number of women in medicine has grown, persistent barriers limit the advancement of women in academia and clinical leadership. Women represent only 18 percent of hospital CEOs and 16 percent of deans and department chairs. The numbers are likely even lower for women physicians of color (Stone, et al, 2019).

To paraphrase a recent Oliver Wyman report, we do not have a “women in medicine problem,” we have a “women in medical leadership problem” (Stone, et al, 2019). To address this issue, we need more sponsorship and mentorship of women by senior leaders and more transparent search and recruitment processes that draw on wide and diverse talent pools that include more than the usual suspects. As we have learned through the pandemic, gender diversity is not only the right thing to do – it can improve the health of populations and save lives.


Helen BurstinHelen Burstin MD, MPH, MACP

Chief Executive Officer of the Council of Medical Specialty Societies (CMSS), a coalition of 45 specialty societies representing more than 800,000 physicians. CMSS works to catalyze improvement across specialties through convening, collaborating, speaking with one voice, and acting together. Dr. Burstin formerly served as Chief Scientific Officer of The National Quality Forum (NQF). Prior to joining NQF, Dr. Burstin was the Director of the Center for Primary Care, Prevention, and Clinical Partnerships at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). Prior to joining AHRQ, Dr. Burstin was Director of Quality Measurement at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Burstin is the author of more than 100 articles and book chapters on quality, safety, equity and measurement. She is a Clinical Professor of Medicine at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

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