Professor Helena Teede believes she was one of the few parents at her daughter’s school to never miss a swimming or athletics carnival.
That’s despite the fact she was developing an extraordinary leadership career in the medical profession, including across academia and in her own clinical practice.
She puts her availability down to the considered effort and investment she put into developing her own capacity for work, including at one point sacrificing salary while negotiating for a leadership position in order to get a ‘corporate-experienced’ excellent PA.
She added that a truly equal partnership at home helped, as did a ‘spectacular mentor’ who encouraged her to continue working on her career development, while she was working part time.
However, speaking today at the RACP Congress, the Director of the Monash Centre for Health Research and Implementation warned that not all women in the medical profession have such opportunities to build their own capacity for work.
While women make up more than half of medical students and trainees, they account for less than 30% of registered physicians and a tiny proportion of clinical leadership positions.
Indeed, Professor Teede shared stories from women she’s interviewed in the profession in the United States who said they had intentionally decided not to have a family, because they couldn’t see how it would be compatible with a medical career.
She also noted that just 13.5% of CEOs in major hospitals are female, despite women making up the vast majority of hospital staff.
“Mentoring, planning and support are all important to ensure the job remains compatible with family life,” she said.
“Women can overcome these challenges if they are adequately supported by the system, including fair maternity leave and part time opportunities and if well mentored during these life stages.”
Professor Teede’s session today at the RACP Congress was a refreshing take on women sharing their career and leadership stories. This was not a ‘women’s event’ but rather an industry event, and men made up a good portion of those present in the room – I witnessed plenty taking detailed notes as Teede suggested how the medical profession can work to unpick some of the unconscious bias preventing women from getting ahead, and offer much better flexibility for men and women.
While the session was specific to medicine, healthcare and medical research, much of the lessons are relevant to any industry that demands long hours and continued excellence.
Some of Professor Teede’s own personal stories were certainly eye opening, particularly regarding some of the unconscious bias – from both men and women – that she’s encountered in her parenting and working life.
She shared the experience of being the sole woman on a 14-person job selection panel interviewing candidates who were majority female. She expressed horror at some of the concerns raised by men once they had wrapped up the interviewing process, who worried that the women wouldn’t want to work as hard as men.
She also shared how a fellow mother at the school gates told her how ‘lucky’ she was that her husband did the school drop-ups and pickups, saying their own husband was far too ‘important’ to be able to help with the school run. This mother was shocked to hear that Professor Teede’s husband worked in exactly the same medical field as her own. “Needless to say her husband was doing more drop offs and picks ups after she found that out.”
Professor Teede repeatedly credited the mentors she’s had in her career, and said that every role she’s had she’s been tapped on the shoulder for.
Professor Teede said pursuing an executive MBA when her kids was small — despite juggling it all with her own busy practice — has been instrumental in later developing her leadership capacity.
She recalled a leadership course facilitator asking if she aspired to “have power” in her career, and how she immediately recoiled from the idea of wanting to be powerful, because of how it’s traditionally defined as being about physical impact and even about being politically authoritative.
But following this conversation, Professor Teede changed her mind on what it meant to aspire to have power, and saw the trajectory of her leadership career change accordingly. “The concept of influence through leadership was the topic of the discussion on that day and it changed my attitude,” she said. “Many women, don’t seek authoritative leadership control, but if that’s the only role models they see, they may not aspire to leadership.”
From then on she said that each time she considered a new role, she carefully analysed what kind of impact she could have in that role.
“Leadership for me is about the motivation for influence and impact, not ever personal control and authority.”
Tips for women in medicine
Professor Teede shared a number of tips for women, particularly around mentoring.
“For women who don’t feel they fit with the leadership role models, remember diversity is important and we absolutely have a right to be at the table and we do not need to be the same as everyone else currently there or nothing will change,” she said.
“When mentoring I encourage women to advocate for themselves objectively as if they were advocating for another.
“When we are making life and career decisions, we need to be strategic about what is most important to us. It’s a matter of realising we can’t do everything, but focus on what is most important to us, plan for it and be relentless in our pursuit of it.”