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In Her Own Words: When it Comes to Gender Balance, We’re at a Tipping Point

Rashmee Shah

Women make up 15-20% of cardiologists in the U.S., making cardiology one of several male-dominated disciplines in medicine. On this International Women’s Day, U of U Health cardiologist Rashmee Shah, MD, explains why gender balance isn’t just a women’s issue, it is something everyone should be thinking about.

When someone asks, “Why should we be concerned about gender balance?”, my answer is that there are many ways to look at this question. Some people argue that it’s an issue of market demand. If over half of your patient population are women, and assuming some patients would like a woman doctor, then you can argue that you need a substantial number of women providers to meet the demand.

Moving beyond that, if you think of the health care system as a business, then its job is to capture the best talent. If the system is biased against women, who make up half of the population, then you are missing out on a large number of the best and brightest people out there. The organization that is successful at capturing the top talent in this underrepresented pool is going to “win”.

Finally, you can’t overlook social justice. About half of our medical students are women and yet in my field, cardiology, we’ve been stuck at a rate of 15-20% women cardiologists for some time. If there are women who want to go into certain fields but the system discourages or flat out prevents them from doing that, then that is unfair. Social justice is an equally compelling reason to address the problem.

There is more research and interest as to why this disparity remains, but the factors can be hard to measure. You can easily measure differences in salary but it is harder to measure subtle discouragement and implicit bias. If it is difficult to measure, then it is difficult to fix.

Shifting the Balance

If we are going to move forward, then educating people about implicit bias will be important. A big part of that is helping leadership understand that they can change the narrative when it comes to women.

Take this scenario, for example: Recently, I was at a meeting and someone remarked that a male colleague was absent because he just had a baby. In reply, another male colleague remarked good-naturedly, “He didn’t have a baby, his wife had a baby. I know how this works!”

That sort of that approach implies that a man’s job is to come to work and a woman’s job is to stay at home. This type of expectation, sometimes less obvious, permeates the workplace. As long as the expectation is that women are less engaged in the work, it will be hard for us to change the norm. I’m not saying which parent should, man or woman, should be responsible for childcare, but that we just need freedom.

Work-life balance is not a women’s issue, it’s everybody’s issue. Each of us should be able to choose where we put our emphasis. These are fundamental societal changes.

We need to put our money where our mouth is. If you want to keep women in the workforce and men are getting paid more than women, then we are disincentivizing women to do that work. If you pay men more, then it may seem more practical for women to stay at home with the kids.

If you value women in the workforce, and recognize the value they bring to the organization, then set up a system that supports and encourages their advancement.

-Based on an interview by Julie Kiefer