This is the first in a two part series on role models, leadership and one stellar medic.

During Ann’s emergency medicine residency, she was often given feedback about the lack of her leadership presence or the inability to “take control” of the department. At first, she thought this was just an individual failing. But as she started to share her experiences with her female co-residents, she realized they were all told the same thing. Perhaps this shouldn’t have been a surprise, as when she looked at her attendings, the ones modeling leadership behavior, she overwhelmingly saw male faces. Although this example of bias may not seem like that big of a deal – we have obviously experienced more overt demonstrations of discrimination, such as a consultant slapping an ass or a potential employer telling us that the job may be difficult for a woman – it matters. The results of such subjective performance reviews contribute to whether or not women develop into leaders, so we need to take a closer look at the bias influencing them.

According to a 2016 report by the Rockefeller Foundation, 92% of Americans believe that traditions of, and expectations for, male leadership in workplace cultures contributes to women’s lack of representation in top positions.1 A recent article in the Harvard Business Review discusses these unseen barriers around the culture of leadership that women face when trying to advance in their careers.2 It is not enough for organizations to just place women in roles as chief residents or medical directors, they must also “support a woman’s motivation to lead and also increase the likelihood that others will recognize and encourage her efforts — even when she doesn’t look or behave like the current generation of senior executives.”

Ann’s residency was not an exception in its male to female predominance among faculty. Although women make up nearly 50% of medical school classes,3 they only account for 36% of EM residents and 25% of active emergency medicine physicians.4 An even smaller percentage are in leadership roles. This phenomenon is not unique to medicine — only 4% of Fortune 500 companies have female CEO’s.

Although there has been a lot of discussion around the importance of mentors and sponsors in advancing women leaders,5, 6, 7 I would argue that there hasn’t been enough of a focus placed on the value of female role models in overcoming implicit bias. A role model is someone who you wish to emulate, someone who inspires you. For women in male-dominated fields, having a female role model may give them the extra encouragement they need to believe that they belong. Furthermore, seeing a woman in a leadership position may help change the subtle biases about what it means to be a leader.8 This seems to be especially important to younger women — 82% of women under age 35 say that they value women leaders as role models, and they want more.9

But where do we find these powerful women when the numbers aren’t in our favor? Perhaps by sharing the stories of our personal role models, we can create our own alternative binder full of women.

Stay tuned for If She Can’t See It, She Can’t Be It: Part 2 tomorrow to meet April Basset, EMT-P!


  1. The Rockefeller Foundation. Women in Leadership: Why It Matters. May 12, 2016.
  2. Ibarra, H., Ely, R., & Kolb, D. Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers. Harvard Business Review. Sept 2013.
  3. Chumley, Heidi. The Importance of Female Role Models in Medicine. Medium. April 17, 2016.
  4. Clem, Kathleen. Emergency Medicine Workforce Needs More Women Physicians. ACEP Now. April 12, 2016.
  5. Hewlett, Sylvia Ann. The Real Benefit of Finding a Sponsor. Harvard Business Review. Jan 26, 2011.
  6. Hewlett, Sylvia Ann. Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track your Career. 2013.
  7. Sandberg, Sheryl. Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. 2013.
  8. Young, D. et al. The Influence of Female Role Models on Women’s Implicit Science Cognitions. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 2013; 37(3):283-292.
  9. The Rockefeller Foundation. Women in Leadership: Why It Matters. May 12, 2016.