An Australian health expert says there are still some deliberate efforts being made to exclude women from leadership roles.

Professor Helena Teede, executive director of the Monash Partners Academic Health Sciences Centre at Monash University, says intentional exclusion is increasingly uncommon and progress is being made, but gender inequity in medical leadership persists.

“Unconscious gender bias still contributes to the so-called glass ceiling or unspoken barriers to career progression, which prevail despite increased qualifications, employability and work performance among women,” she writes in a new article for the Medical Journal of Australia.

Women have attained gender parity in Australian medical schools for decades, Professor Teede says.

“However, under-representation of women in senior leadership positions persists, and the age-old argument that this is due to a time lag or pipeline effect clearly no longer applies,” she said.

“In Australia, around 30 per cent of deans, chief medical officers or medical college board or committee members are women, while women make up 12.5 per cent of CEOs in large hospitals.”

As a Professor of Medicine at a relatively young age, Professor Teede said that her roles often involved being the “token” single woman in settings where leadership was often defined around traditionally masculine characteristics, highly competitive leadership styles, non-inclusive behaviours and limited diversity.

“This presented me with personal disincentives to adopting and retaining some roles,” she said.

“Leadership training and mentoring enabled me to progress from initial avoidance to identifying, respectfully challenging and often positively influencing unconscious bias and non-inclusive leadership behaviours.”

She breaks down the barriers to female leadership fell into three main themes:

  • Capacity: limitations due to additional household and parenting duties disproportionately shouldered by women. “Australian medical workforce data show women work equal hours initially, have a sharp decline corresponding to maternity leave and early preschool years, then a rise to similar hours to men,” Professor Teede wrote.
  • Capability: perceived capability or confidence women may hold in their ability to lead. “Women are less likely to advocate for or promote themselves, with less nominations for awards or less actively seeking pay rises or career opportunities … women who do seek promotion often do so when they are mentored, supported or sponsored by others, which can inform organisational approaches to increasing women in leadership,” she said.
  • Credibility: perceived traits that are consistent with leadership. “There persists a bias in leadership and organisational culture linking traditionally masculine styles and values to leadership credibility … which may reduce the motivation for women to seek or retain leadership positions. A preference for distributive leadership is more common among women, who are more likely to seek and consider input from teams and stakeholders”.

Professor Teede wrote that work was underway to codesign a national “program in health care, including an implementation roadmap for organisations and measurable and benchmarked outcomes”.

“More research will be crucial to codesign, implement and evaluate effective strategies to enable gender equity and diversity more broadly at the individual, organisational and systems level and, where effective, these should be scaled across our health system and beyond,” she concluded.