Skip to main content

Mentoring is Key to Growing Women’s Leadership in Medicine

Written by: Heidi Splete
Published on: Nov 26, 2021

Attentive female doctor
Photo credit: Steve Debenport/Getty Images



Men may think they are supportive of women in the workplace, but if you ask women, they say there is a discrepancy, according to W. Brad Johnson, PhD, a clinical psychologist and professor at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

United States Naval Academy
Dr. W. Brad Johnson

“We may think we are acting as allies to women because we believe in it, but it may not be showing up in the execution,” he said in a presentation at the virtual Advance PHM Gender Equity Conference.

Although women currently account for the majority of medical school students, they make up only 16% of the population of medical school deans, 18% of department chairs, and 25% of full professors, according to 2019 data from the Association of American Medical Colleges, Dr. Johnson said.

Dr. Johnson offered some guidance for how men can become better allies for women in the workplace through interpersonal allyship, public allyship, and systemic allyship.

Interpersonal allyship and opportunities for mentoring women in medicine start by building trust, friendship, and collegiality between men and women colleagues, Dr. Johnson explained.

He provided some guidance for men to “sharpen their gender intelligence,” which starts with listening. Surveys of women show that they would like male colleagues to be a sounding board, rather than simply offering to jump in with a fix for a problem. “Show humility,” he said, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and don’t assume that a colleague wants something in particular because she is a woman.

“A lot of men get stuck on breaking the ice and getting started with a mentoring conversation,” Dr. Johnson said. One way to is by telling a female colleague who gave an outstanding presentation, or has conducted outstanding research, that you want to keep her in your organization and that she is welcome to talk about her goals. Women appreciate mentoring as “a constellation” and a way to build support, and have one person introduce them to others who can build a network and promote opportunities for leadership. Also, he encouraged men to be open to feedback from female colleagues on how they can be more supportive in the workplace. Sincerity and genuine effort go a long way towards improving gender equity.

Public allyship can take many forms, including putting women center stage to share their own ideas, Dr. Johnson said. Surveys of women show that they often feel dismissed or slighted and not given credit for an idea that was ultimately presented by a male colleague, he noted. Instead, be a female colleague’s biggest fan, and put her in the spotlight if she is truly the expert on the topic at hand.

Women also may be hamstrung in acceding to leadership positions by the use of subjective evaluations, said Dr. Johnson. He cited a 2018 analysis of 81,000 performance evaluations by the Harvard Business Review in which the top positive term used to describe men was analytical, while the top positive term used to describe women was compassionate. “All these things go with pay and promotions, and they tend to disadvantage women,” he said.

Dr. Johnson provided two avenues for how men can effectively show up as allies for women in the workplace.

First, start at the top. CEOs and senior men in an organization have a unique opportunity to set an example and talk publicly about supporting and promoting women, said Dr. Johnson.

Second, work at the grassroots level. He encouraged men to educate themselves with gender equity workshops, and act as collaborators. “Don’t tell women how to do gender equity,” he said, but show up, be present, be mindful, and be patient if someone seems not to respond immediately to opportunities for mentoring or sponsorship.

“Claiming ally or mentor status with someone from a nondominant group may invoke power, privilege, or even ownership” without intention, he said. Instead, “Always let others label you and the nature of the relationship [such as ally or mentor].”

For more information about allyship, visit Dr. Johnson’s website,

This article was originally published by The Hospitalist.