Last Thursday, downtown Philadelphia experienced an earthquake. Left in its wake, we did not find rubble nor dust but rather strength, comradery and inspiration.

The force that caused the colliding of these grand, professional tectonic plates was the convening of a panel of leaders in emergency medicine. A panel consisting of  emergency department chairs, residency program directors, ultrasound division directors, medical directors and past presidents of ACEP chapters.  All happened to be women. In the audience were over 40 EM residents and attending physicians from each of the training programs in the greater Philadelphia area. All were eager to hear the advice and meet and learn from each other. The event was hosted by Penn Emergency Medicine’s #shemergency group (more can be heard here) and sold out of its limited seating in under two weeks.

To start off the discussion, the panel of female EM leaders each shared the best piece of advice they had received over their career. Some invited young physicians to always “say yes” to every opportunity when it presents itself, whether or not one feels qualified or deserving. Others recognized that while the tendency may be to dwell on failures and disappointments, giving oneself no longer than 48 hours before a self-enforced “move on” moment is the key to keep progressing. And yet others encouraged young women physicians to act boldly and confidently, and perhaps ask for forgiveness later, rather than asking for permission at every step.

While the openers of the “best advice” segment provided an initial view into each of these powerhouse physicians’ unique personalities, the heat and heart of the discussion, and what I as a listener found the most interesting, came from the question for which the panel was named:  “Physician Women in Leadership: Play the Game or Change the Rules?” It was in response to this question that there appeared to be the most disagreement and the most rich, honest and vulnerable discussion. Even now, several days after the event, it continues to be this question to which I struggle to find my own answer.

Before we can talk about why this question was so controversial, I should lay out the obvious presumptions the question assumes. 1) Medicine has rules. 2) These rules were created, fortified and dogmatized long before women became physicians and certainly before they came physician leaders. 3) Being in a leadership role means having the power to reinvent the game and the rules. But do the rules even matter?

One group, perhaps the traditional rule-followers, firmly believed that the path to success was to be genuine and to act naturally. They urged the audience to trust that the speciality of medicine, at least now in 2018, needs and desires what women are uniquely able to contribute. On the other side, there were others who observed that medicine still possessed an element of a “boys’ club”. A club that, while well-established, can and should be quietly infiltrated by women to observe and learn how things are discussed and decisions are made.

Perhaps, the question is less about style and more about personality. After all, what the panel demonstrated and what most of us learn as young girls is that women peer empowerment is a strong force.  On the other hand, what each of us have coded on our non-X chromosome is as unique and diverse and rich as the personal, cultural, regional and socioeconomic experiences we bring to each encounter – whether at home, in a patient room or in a boardroom. Sure, there are traits that are “male” and others that are “female”, but we all possess these traits to a varying degree. Knowing when and how to use power granted to us through our genetics, upbringings and life experiences, is a powerful skill that we each dynamically craft over the years.

My takeaway was simple – there is no one path or personality or style which stands out as the way to become a leader. The importance of events such as the #shemergency panel are to expose aspiring leaders to candid discussion about the many different ways one can learn to lead. As AMA’s Women in Medicine Month recently highlighted, less than 10% of women who self-identify as holding leadership positions are chairs, CEO or CMOs. This suggests that there are plenty of seats at the table that are waiting for future leaders such as the attendees of the event.

Book and Podcast Suggestions that came from the Panelists:

  • Nonviolent Communications by Marshall Rosenberg
  • Crucial Conversations – Patterson, Granny et al.
  • The Upside of Stress – McGonigal
  • Women Don’t Ask – Babcock & Laschever
  • Give and Take – Adam Grant
  • Grit – Angela Duckworth
  • Daring Greatly – Brene Brown
  • Mindset – Carol Dweck
  • Lean In – Nell Scovell and Sheryl Sandberg