Betsy Nabel, MD, president of Brigham Health, was the featured speaker during the 10th annual Nancy Tarbell, MD, Faculty Development Lectureship Series May 9, sponsored by the Center for Faculty Development. This lectureship was established to provide career advancement and professional development insights from highly regarded leaders to MGH faculty. In her presentation, “Picture a Leader: Is it You?” Nabel focused on the disparity between the number of male and female leaders in health care and what changes need to be made to provide more women and underrepresented minorities a seat at the table.

“When we look at leaders we ask ourselves, ‘Does this person fit the image I have in my head?’” Nabel said. “When asked to describe a leader, people almost always describe a male and use male-related language. This is an example of confirmation bias. We want the idea in our heads to match the potential leader. We are evaluating based on a stereotype rather than reality.”

Nabel highlighted the need for more women in leadership positions, noting that, although women are finding more overall representation in academic medicine, the ratio continues to lag at the leadership level. She discussed data gathered by Harvard Medical School and Harvard Dental School in which the breakdown by gender is about 50-50 at the instructor level, but at the full professor level only 17 percent are women. She also highlighted recent statistics featured in the journal Nature, which reported that although 54 percent of editors were women, only 18 percent of scientists profiled were women and only 19 percent of commissioned articles had a female author.

To combat confirmation bias and other prejudices that can keep women from leadership positions or opportunities, Nabel emphasized the importance of sponsorship. She encouraged both men and women to publicly support the advancement of those with untapped leadership potential even if they do not match the “established image” of leaders. “Encourage female colleagues or others that are underrepresented in leadership roles to chair committees, join editorial boards, apply for promotions, join professional groups and take leadership classes,” she said.

When taking advantage of these opportunities, Nabel added, “It is important to engage and step up to the plate. Make mistakes, volunteer and make your interests and passions known. Don’t wait to be a leader. You’re a leader now.”

Read more articles from the 05/25/18 Hotline issue.