We already know that women in medicine aren’t supported and promoted as they should be. We know the US healthcare system is a toxic environment. We know this combination leads to burnout among our most dedicated colleagues, and eventually to complete bail out from medicine. So, while most women are working to fix the toxic system by changing their personal habits (and perhaps this is their only sphere of control, in which case, it’s better than nothing), I believe that some of the most common career advice given to women physicians rings hollow when you really dig into it.

I was recently struck by a thread on social media asking about the worst burnout advice ever received in the context of career advice for women physicians. The thing that stood out the most was that these women were reporting career advice from mentors and coaches about the ‘what’ but it was all missing the ‘how’. The devil is in the details, and so the success of these bits of advice is in the implementation (or lack thereof!).

Here are five tips for career advancement for women physicians that are extremely common, and at first glance appear easy to understand. Yet, they continue to be a struggle for many women in medicine and perhaps in other careers. (Perhaps for men too, though for some of these, the data suggest otherwise.)

And while this post doesn’t have every single answer – that would be a MUCH longer conversation, and it would be different for each person – I hope it leaves you with the key message that these career tips are really just that. They are tips. Tips of an iceburg with so much under the surface that needs to be addressed. And it can be!

Read on…and don’t forget to watch at least the first 60 seconds of this video!


Career tips for women in medicine

“You’ve got to speak up.”

Ever walk away from a high-stakes conversation and wish you’d said something else? Something that came to you just seconds too late? There are ways to prevent these types of situations, and to recover the lost opportunity from a position of strength. And when you speak, leverage strategies that frame your argument from the perspective of the person you’re trying to persuade. Help them understand how what you want is actually win for them, and you’ll always come out on top. This also requires the forethought to know what you want to say when the opportunity presents itself. This requires careful consideration and message mapping (sometimes also called professional branding) in advance so what comes out of your mouth will be the right thing at the right time. It’s not about confidence to speak up – it’s about preparedness.

“Always negotiate.”

We’ve heard it before – women are less likely to negotiate. We don’t know how. We don’t know what to ask for. We don’t know how to ask. Is negotiating the same as asking? You can make major strides in your career advancement by knowing how to have difficult conversations with those who hold the cards. Communication is notoriously hard, especially when the outcomes are important and you may only get one chance. But this is a learned skill. Not just the language or the strategy for ‘back and forth’ but also how to find out what things are actually fixed (not within the decision-maker’s power to change) and what can truly be on the table for negotiation. Just one example of this from my own blog is on setting your speaker fee. Most doctors simply accept invitations to speak for free, and don’t have any insights as to what typical professional speaker contracts include (both monetary and other items or experiences of value). These can all be negotiated, but you have to know where to spend your efforts and where you’re most likely to get a win.

“Learn to prioritize.”

A no-brainer, really, but how to actually figure out what to do when there’s too much to do? Of course, there are a million organizational and productivity systems, but they only work if you have the right framework to support them. A framework that is tightly linked to a specific direction and personal mission. Without this, you’ll be unable to set that course and stick to it when you feel like you can’t say no to an urgent request. Most people believe they know their values, but when they dig into it, they either don’t discriminate (meaning, they value all of the ‘good’ values equally) or they find that their activities don’t reflect their values. I mean, seriously, coach Scott Jeffrey lists 230 personal values. How can you live by 200 core values? Zoning in on the top few is 100% necessary before any real prioritization strategy will work. Fortunately, Scott also has a system for narrowing your values 🙂

“Set boundaries.”

Yep. Everyone talks about setting boundaries and sticking to them. Easy enough to say, but much harder to practice. Have you struggled with exactly which boundaries will give you the most benefit, and how to go about actually articulating or achieving them? Choosing the boundaries that matter most is important, because you do want to preserve your work and family relationships, and you don’t want to jeopardize your status as a contributing member of the group. So, wise choices are important, and the ‘right ones’ will vary from person to person. The strategies for identifying them, however, are the same. And taking this a few steps further, it is important to know how to implement changes in your boundaries when you aren’t starting somewhere new. As well, it’s crucial to be aware of and avoid the self-sabotaging behaviors that we sometimes do that undermine and erode our stated boundaries.

“Find a sponsor.”

Yes, we all need sponsors to help us get important opportunities, but the biggest barrier many women identify is an inability to find those sponsors. Remember that sponsorship isn’t charity – a person of influence is using your skills and hard work to benefit the company/organization. This is win/win/win because you get the chance to shine and deliver, your sponsor gets kudos for identifying the talent (that’s you), and the organization gets what they need.

But, how to find the right sponsors? This is the bigger challenge, as I discuss in the video. There are also really simply ways to expand your network and build relationships with potential sponsors that they don’t seem to teach us in medical school or residency. I learned them in my non-clinical business environment, and they would work just as well in an academic or healthcare organization setting.

Plus, there are tested and proven steps you can take today to improve the likelihood that others will think of you and recruit you for the right opportunities. The digital world makes this all the more important, and all the more accessible. One of the the things I write about the most is how you can determine what people think about you now, and how you can influence how that changes (or doesn’t) in the future. So instead of seeking opportunities you can attract them to you. Of course, be proactive and assertive, and also do what you can to be an opportunity magnet. This approach has worked for me in academics, in public speaking, and in business. It’s also worked for my colleagues and students. If you haven’t leveraged this approach yet, keep in mind it may work for you too!

So, what can you do instead? I have a recommendation below, of course. But even if you don’t take it, do something to try to fill the gaps in these five empty pieces of career advice for women physicians.

Make sure your professional development addresses what’s missing. If you haven’t thought about the nuances of these career tips in this way before reading this post, that’s a great start! Now, you may be able to have more productive conversations with your mentors, or have more specific ideas in mind for your own self-directed professional growth (books, podcasts, meetings, etc).

My personal recommendation: these are just some of the problems we solve at TransforMD, a unique retreat for women physicians.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention specifically that one of our most powerful tools to access the right decisions for you and the right solutions for you is in the integrated meditation curriculum. It’s not woo-woo. It’s meditation for high performers who want less stress, more resilience, greater creativity, better problem solving, and more deliberate responses to situations that trigger frustration. It’s meditation for people who think they can’t meditate (hey, that was me before I took the full course!). It’s effortless and it’s incredibly life-changing. So we take modern career acceleration strategies, powerful meditation, a tropical paradise luxury resort, and time dedicated just for YOU – and this combination gets real results. But don’t take my word for it. You can read more about other women physicians’ experiences on the website.

But again, whether you take me up on this invitation or not, be sure to keep this post top of mind when you’re having mentoring or coaching sessions, or choosing your next book, or thinking about an upcoming high-stakes meeting. Your career and your life is YOURS. No one can dictate it for you, and no one will care about it as much as you do. You must make yourself the priority.

retreat for women physicians

What do you think about my take on these bits of career advice? Let me know by tagging this article and me (@DrMStiegler) on any social platform and tell me where I’ve missed the mark, or where I’m spot on.


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