The FemInEM Focus: Amplification Helps Lessen Bias Against Women

Kass, Dara MD

doi: 10.1097/01.EEM.0000513584.57284.8f
The FemInEM Focus

Dr. Kass is the editor-in-chief of www.feminem.org and an assistant professor in emergency medicine at New York University/Bellevue Hospital. Follow her on Twitter @feminemtweets and @darakass. Read her past columns at http://bit.ly/EMN-FemInEM.

Article Outline

Our original plan for FemInEM was simple. We would create a website to host content affecting women in the emergency medicine workforce, hope that the open access model would allow content to be disseminated widely, and see what happened.

Almost immediately, we saw how this forum and its dedicated community served as a robust support system for women in emergency medicine. We realized by highlighting the amazing work done by FemInEMs, we could buffer many of the gender biases women face. It turns out that using the collective voice of women, especially when reiterating the ideas or accomplishments of a single woman, is a strategy that works. It's called amplification.

The Washington Post published an article last September profiling top female staffers in President Obama's White House. (The Washington Post, Sept. 13, 2016; http://wapo.st/2iKQNh7.) The women spoke about their struggle to make their voices heard in a male-dominated workplace. Women made up about one-third of the top aides in 2009, a dramatic increase from the five percent in the 1980s but still a far cry from gender equity. (The Brookings Institution, Sept. 1, 2002; http://brook.gs/2j3QI6T.)

Katie Beck-Esmay, our FemInEM intern, wrote an article for the site, asking these questions: “Raise your hand if you have ever had a male peer interrupt you. Were you in the middle of expressing a cogent thought? Did you have a knowledgeable opinion? Is there any chance that the interrupter had less knowledge on the topic than you? Is there a chance the interrupter had NO knowledge on the topic? Now raise your hand if you have ever expressed an idea that was totally ignored UNTIL a man said the exact same thing. Did that same man take credit for the original idea later?” (Dec. 15, 2016; http://bit.ly/2jyc7na.)

The scenarios were not meant to be divisive but to inspire reflection. Unconscious bias is by definition unrecognized by all parties. Highlighting these biases and the situations in which they arise is a first step toward reducing their influence on our workplace.

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Amplifying Voices

The women in the early days of President Obama's White House said in the same Washington Post article that they “were not included or straight up ignored.” Female staffers created the amplification strategy to combat this reality. When one woman expressed a good idea, the other women in the room would amplify the point by repeating it and crediting the idea originator. This acknowledgement forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.” These women made amplification a habit during their meetings. President Obama noticed and started calling on women and junior aides more often.

The numbers in the White House started to change. Half of all White House departments were headed by women by President Obama's second term. Not all of that progress can be attributed to the amplification strategy; second-term administrations are more favorable to women, but that's a topic for another day.

We at FemInEM have seen this amplification strategy work as well. Our Honors section provides a neutral space for us to highlight the awards given to women across the house of medicine. Reminding our broader emergency medicine community of the talented women in our field is critical to getting more women promoted to leadership.

Thirty-four percent of physicians today are women, up from 7.6 percent in 1970. (Medscape, Nov. 16, 2010; http://wb.md/2jy8I8f; Kaiser Family Foundation, September 2016; http://kaiserf.am/2kbuyBj.) Nearly half of medical school graduates today are female. (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2015; http://kaiserf.am/2iU6PR7.) These numbers are encouraging, but the number of women in leadership positions is lagging. Women make up 16 percent of medical school deans, 15 percent of department chairs, and 22 percent of tenured professors, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. (2014; http://bit.ly/2k9HVxS.) We need a way to support the deserving women and promote them to these positions of institutional leadership.

Ms. Beck-Esmay reflected on her recent experience at the American Association of Women Emergency Physicians meeting in her article, noting that these women are dedicated to working together and making each other's voices heard. “It was an inspiring experience for an aspiring female physician such as myself,” she wrote. “What is more, whether they knew it or not, they were amplifying. ... We must strive to apply this technique when men outnumber us. ... [P]erhaps we can begin to eliminate the gender disparities that continue to persist in leadership positions in medicine.”

Amplification is just one strategy to support diversity and inclusion of thought in a workplace, and it works for all of us. A recent discussion on our FemInEM Facebook page yielded this post: “I had a recent experience at a board retreat where a male colleague repeated something I had said earlier in a smaller group. He acknowledged that it was my idea, and I immediately thanked him in front of the entire group.”

Amplification works, and it is available anytime to anyone for free. Let's get to it.

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