We’re speaking today with Dr. Kinjal Sethuraman who is Assistant Director of Hyperbaric Medicine at the University of Maryland and Past President of AWAEM from 2017-2018. She speaks about how AWAEM has been her “life vest,” and how being a part of AWAEM has influenced how she writes, negotiates, and how often she thinks about what other people think of her, which happens to be very little— and also makes her my hero.
M Lin: Tell us a little bit about how you spend your time.
K Sethuraman: My job is 75% hyperbaric medicine and then 25% emergency medicine. I also interview for the med school, I interview for the MD program, and the rest of my time is surrounded with anything and everything related to my kids.
M Lin: Great. What initially motivated your involvement with AWAEM?
K Sethuraman: I know we always remember that moment when you know that this is something that’s going to be a part of your life for a really long time. I was in Seoul, South Korea, living there for about a year and Esther Choo came to visit and she was talking about this “women in medicine” organization. We had talked about women in medicine issues as residents together and so she said, “Kinjal this is perfect for you. This is where you need to be.” So, I came back into academics because I wanted to be part of a larger community, but then joined AWAEM pretty much in the first few years, that it started. I became Awards Chair initially, right out of the gate. I was hooked. I found my people.
M Lin: Why AWAEM as opposed to any other women focused group?
K Sethuraman: Because it was specifically for academic women. It also had a lot of very successful women that were starting it and I thought that was a great place to start. Not just a few friends that were getting together. Their mission statement and everything that surrounded it seemed like it was going to be successful because it was started by very successful people.
M Lin: And how has AWAEM affected your career since then?
K Sethuraman: For me it’s really been my life vest. When I start to get, feel like, you know the clinical work is getting too stressful or the publications are getting rejected or any low time I just look to all the great things that AWAEM does and how I can be a part of a much bigger community. That really keeps me going and keeps me interested.
M Lin: Can you point to any specific AWAEM initiatives and projects that might have had the greatest impact on your career?
K Sethuraman: On my career I would say the real push to publishing. I admittedly am not the best writer and I think because of AWAEM I’ve gained confidence in my writing skills. A lot of my publications have come out of collaborations with different members of AWAEM and different members of our research committees and learning from them and realizing that, you know what, I’m actually not a bad writer. You see how other people organize their work, how they organize their writing you see that they fail, and they figure it out. So, then you can fail, and you can figure it out and it validates everything that you’re good at and it validates that you can rise above any setback or failure.
M Lin: So how did you go from there to being president? What impacted your desire for a leadership role in AWAEM?
K Sethuraman: Most of it was I had been a part of AWAEM for a really long time and I saw it was something I really believed in. I’m a big proponent of a sense of community, a sense of camaraderie. I just wanted to keep that momentum going. I started out as Awards Chair; I did that for a couple of years. Then I mentored other people in the Awards Chair position. At that time, we had this Member at Large position which was kind of ill defined. From there I became Secretary or maybe I was Secretary first. I don’t know what order. At some point I was like you know what I’m just going to try to be President. It just seemed like the natural next step.
M Lin: You mentioned that you started out on the Awards Committee. Tell me a little bit about that and why it’s important for women in Academic Emergency Medicine.
K Sethuraman: It’s no secret that more men get awards that are impactful for their promotional packages and for their own validation. When we looked at the data of woman receiving some of the top-notch awards in Emergency Medicine, whether it’s through SAEM or ACEP, it was almost all men except maybe for some of the Educational Awards. We wanted to have a space where we recognized impactful woman. That’s where Awards came in. We started out with just 3 or maybe 4. From there we moved it and now we have a lot of awards. It’s this whole beast of its own and the Awards program has really taken off. This way we can recognize people that would otherwise be over shadowed by or might be over looked because of unconscious bias in the selection process of other national awards.
M Lin: When did you first perceive gender inequality to be a problem in your career?
K Sethuraman: In my career? Gender inequality? I went to an all-girls high school. I didn’t think of gender as being a thing because I went to an all-girls high school. It was a really good space for me, looking back I hated it while I was there, but looking back I thought it was a really good space for me. It was like being a president of everything and anything was a girl. It was never a question. I got to college and I found for myself basically men lead in every leadership position. There was one guy as a freshman he was like, “I thought you was a senior because you’re so confident.” I was like I better tone that down. I remember that conversation I remember exactly where it happened, I remember exactly how it impacted me in terms of my own confidence and self-worth.
K Sethuraman: As far as medicine as a career, it’s never not been there. For me in a lot of respects, I just thought that was normal. I remember times when a surgical chief resident, a female, made a comment when I was a third-year medical student that all woman should wear makeup and look their best when they are working. This was a surgical chief resident female that said that to me! I was like “I don’t even know how to put on makeup.” I don’t know that stuff. I just thought that was a very sexist bias thing for a woman to say to another woman and very degrading. I remember other times when I would use a pen that was a different color. It was pink or something like that. A male attending would say something like “Oh yeah, there are only certain types of people that use pink pens.” Things like that but they were subtle, they have obviously stuck in my mind for a really long time. A lot of that has been erased because of AWAEM, there was a lot of reworking of my wiring because of AWAEM.
M Lin: Can you be a little bit more specific about how AWAEM has helped rewire that for you?
K Sethuraman: Hearing stories of other woman that had the same exact experiences, but they didn’t take it. They were like, “Oh yeah, that happened to me and I just stood up for myself. I spoke up and I talked back, I wasn’t the nice girl. I broke those barriers because I was willing to take risks.” Taking those risks takes a lot of guts and really facing those fears of someone saying she’s difficult. Being surrounded by women that were just like me made it okay to be me. If that makes sense.
M Lin: How has AWAEM impacted your career perhaps in terms of gender equity and pay or promotions?
K Sethuraman: Now whenever I go in to meet with my boss, because of the didactics that AWAEM has done at SAEM and negotiation didactics and talking to woman that are chairs that are willing to share their secrets, whenever I go into to talk to my chair or any boss, really any situation where I know I’m going to have to negotiate something, I go in with data. I learned that because of AWAEM. I learned that because I went to those sessions and I was really paying attention. I go in with data about how much I’ve done, what I bring to the table, it’s not like, “Hey, I need to buy a bigger house. Or, hey, I’m having another kid.” It was like, “No, this is what I bring to the table, this is my ask. Tell me what I can get to get there to get that ask.” Having a stronger voice because of bringing into things that the chair cares about that was a huge lesson that I learned. It’s not just about me—it’s what I can do for them.
M Lin: Can you describe in your own experience how leadership in an organization like AWAEM might be considered for example for academic advancement?
K Sethuraman: It’s a huge national organization at this point. It’s the largest academy in SAEM. Under my watch we had 250 members give or take. That is not a small number to manage. We have an organizational structure that is large and complex. Managing all those people who are effectively, if you were looking at a job in business, they would be direct reports. Looking at from a point of view of running a company or running an organization that is a pretty big deal. That skill set of leadership is something that you don’t have necessarily have the opportunity to get if you were not part of an organization like AWAEM.
M Lin: How have you perceived a leadership role in a woman focused professional organization has been perceived relative to a leadership role in any other type of national organization?
K Sethuraman: By people at work or in general?
M Lin: Anyone.
K Sethuraman: I don’t know. I don’t think about what other people think as much as I used to. That’s because of AWAEM. I know that I have a lot of pride in my work through this very large complex and productive organization and I’m very proud of that. So, if anyone says, “Hey you know what it’s just a woman’s group or hey what do you do? Do you just go to dinners or something?” I answer by saying exactly what I’m saying here. I explain these are our accomplishments. I led an organization that was 250 people, its triple the size of our faculty. I’m very proud of that and it doesn’t matter that it is a woman’s organization or not. These are woman that, each one has their light, we try to amplify every single person that’s part of our group.
M Lin: How have you seen AWAEM change?
K Sethuraman: Over the years, I have been a part of it for 8 years now, it was smaller more intimate, when I first got there. At the organizational structure, it has ballooned, we have multiple Vice Presidents now that we did not have before. We have the Executive Council that’s very large all by itself. Then we have lots and lots of people on the committees. Everyone wants to be involved. I think that because it is such a huge group you do need that organizational structure and you do need to create opportunities for people to take on leadership and take on a project. It’s gotten bigger and better and more complex.
M Lin: How do you anticipate the needs of woman in Academic Emergency Medicine might befall in the next 10 years? And how AWAEM might meet those needs better.
K Sethuraman: In the next 10 years? I think in the next 10 years what we are going to find is more and more woman going up. I think in the next 10 years what we’re going to see is we are at a point where it is cool to be a woman in medicine. Where its programs are specifically made for women in medicine and I think that, in itself, speaks volumes about where we are going to be in 10 years. We are going to continue to take risks, take on leadership, and tell our stories of how we got there. You are going to see a lot more woman that are going for traditionally competitive male positions.
K Sethuraman: If you look at papers that have been published from the mid 90’s to the early 2000’s it’s like “rinse, repeat.” Some of these papers that were written about gender inequities in medicine, they are saying the same thing that we are saying. We are just like “rinse, repeat,” it’s a broken record. I’m really tired of this record, hopefully in the next 10 years we’ll look back and say, “You know what things have changed. Things have really changed.” There was a paper that I was reading just the other day, it was published in 2001, its exactly the same stuff we are talking about now. Nothing has changed, the needle has not moved and hopefully in 10 years because of organizations like AWAEM, because of things like the conferences for women, we will not be sitting there rehashing the same research questions again.
M Lin: I hope you’re right. We are going to pivot a little bit more towards you personally. What career accomplishment would you say you are the most proud of?
K Sethuraman: Career accomplishment that I’m most proud of? I think just getting through med school and matching in Emergency Medicine. It’s so basic for me. It’s just being where I am right now. It’s not after residency, it’s just getting through it.
M Lin: That is an accomplishment. Absolutely. What piece of advice might you give a younger version of yourself or an AWAEM member at an earlier stage of her career that perhaps you didn’t know?
K Sethuraman: Honestly, I would say go to national meetings and join groups like AWAEM. Find your people, find your raft. If AWAEM existed when I was a resident, I think my career trajectory would’ve been a little bit less choppy. I would’ve taken turns at different places and I would’ve had this network of automatic mentors. Rather than trying to seek out people, I would just have a network and it would be easy.
M Lin: Please name three other AWAEM members we should consider interviewing. One perhaps around your career stage, one whose more junior and one whose more senior.
K Sethuraman: Okay. I’ve been thinking about this. More junior I would say interview Sarah Gibbs at the University of Maryland. Can I give you more? Danya Khoujah also at University of Maryland. Those people are a few years behind me. At my stage, let me think about this one, I don’t know if they’re AWAEM members. Everyone I know is an AWAEM member. I’ll come back to that one. More senior would be Tracy Sanson, who’s here by the way. Tracy Sanson is a good one. Jill Baren is a good one. Angela Mills. There are many, many people above us. At my level I’m in the same cohort as Dara and Esther, I would interview Dara. Aisha Liferidge I think she is sort of at my level. Ava Pierce who’s at UT. She is the immediate past president of ADIEM.
M Lin: Terrific suggestions. Anything else I didn’t ask about AWAEM or about women in Emergency Medicine that you would like to share?
K Sethuraman: The one unique thing about women in Emergency Medicine in particular is that we tend to collaborate. Honestly the culture of AWAEM is collaborative, people who are in it for themselves don’t last very long in AWAEM because they are slowed down. A collaborative process is slower than if you were to just pummel through something by yourself, depending on what that is. The reason why I have kept on with AWAEM and probably will for my entire career is the fact that it is so collaborative. Hopefully no one feels that they’re left out or not invited. I feel like we make an effort to be inclusive.
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