A female cardiologist’s guide to combating gender inequality through advocacy
The following is written by Dr. Toniya Singh, M.D., F.A.C.C., whom we are honored to call a friend and colleague, and has been featured in St. Louis Post-Dispatch and St. Louis Women’s Journal. Dr. Singh is an invasive, non-interventional cardiologist and a managing partner at St. Louis Heart and Vascular. She is also the founding President of the Missouri chapter of Women in Cardiology (WIC) section of The American College of Cardiology and board member of the American Heart Association.
“You’re not a feminist. You’re an individualist.”
My son recently said this to me, and it made me think. His explanation was that I am an advocate for the individual rights and remunerations of a person based on his or her independent actions, regardless of gender.
I dislike arguing about the definitions of feminism versus individualism or discussing which movement is more valid. I am well aware of the many nuances that inherently come with each ideology, and I believe that feminists and individualists all over the world have made—and continue to make—this world a better place. But I have never liked labels because labels don’t matter—facts do. And here is a sobering one: Women are not treated as equals in the workplace. Despite the monumental progress that has been made throughout history, women’s earnings and career advancements continue to trail those of men with comparable education and experience.
I see this firsthand; only 12% of the cardiologists nationwide are female and I’m one of them. According to an American College of Cardiology Survey, 63 percent of my female peers have experienced discrimination in the workplace, such as receiving a lower salary than others in their cohort or being passed up for promotion.
The statistics are similar across industries; the Census Bureau calculates that the average woman in the United States makes 79 cents for every dollar paid to a male counterpart. In top corporate positions, specifically, a recent study found that there’s a sizable gender gap both in terms of the number of female executives (18 percent gap) and how much money they make compared to men (27 percent gap).
Medicine is not exempt—and is the industry with which I am most familiar. Reshma Jagsi, M.D., D.Phil., conducted a study which provided evidence that gender differences in compensation continue to exist in academic medicine. Jagsi states that, “efforts to investigate the mechanisms by which these gender differences develop and ways to mitigate their effects merit continued attention.”
I feel compelled to do just that—investigate ways to mitigate gender disparity in cardiology and in the workplace in general. Despite the fact that more CEOs, heads of state, and university leaders are committing themselves to gender-equality goals than ever, progress remains slow. This is why I’m not concerned with labels. I’m not interested in complaining about the opportunities that my female peers and I have not been given. And I am certainly not here to label society as unfair or demand help.
As a solution-oriented person, I am much more interested in the answers to these questions: Did the women who have experienced pay inequality ever ask to get paid better? Did they negotiate as fiercely as their male counterparts? More importantly, were they given the tools and confidence to do so?
What I’m here to do is empower women to be their own advocates.
It’s time to change the conversation. It’s time to teach the next generation of women that the more we accept personal responsibility for our own lives, the more successful we can be. It’s time to stop labeling and start acting.
Here’s how you can become your own best advocate:
- Be informed. Whether you’re negotiating salary or asking for a promotion, it’s important to know what those in similar positions are making and what kind of experience they have. While your peers don’t necessarily define your worth, having this information in your back pocket—should you need it—makes for a much more compelling argument. There are plenty of resources online that allow you to research median salaries for almost any position in every industry. Or, better yet, ask your more experienced colleagues. You’d be surprised at how many women are willing to discuss these things openly in order to help younger generations succeed.
- Be confident. It’s been said that men will apply for a job if they meet only 60 percent of the qualifications, but women will only apply if they meet 100 percent of the qualifications. What does that tell us? Women need to be more confident in their abilities. You have trained hard, you are capable, and you bring value to the market. You know your worth, so stand firm when articulating it.
- Be realistic. Earning the respect you deserve is one thing, but getting what you want just because you want it is entirely different. Be honest with yourself—you can’t negotiate if you don’t have the required experience or skillsets. It’s also important to understand that you can’t have it all. In an ideal world, we would all have time for our careers and families and social life and hobbies. But realistically, work-life balance comes at a cost. You won’t get paid for 50 hours when you only work 30, no matter how talented you may be. You must be realistic about your own priorities and capacity before demanding more.
- Operate under the assumption that you are being treated as an equal. During any conversation about advancing your career, your goals and skillsets should be your main arguing points. Don’t even bring gender into the equation. If you want to be treated as an equal, it’s best to operate under the assumption that everyone already sees you as an equal. Conversely, know that no one has the right to ask you any gender-biased questions in a professional setting. There is rarely a reason for you to discuss your children, relationship, or plans for pregnancy while applying for a job or negotiating a raise.
- Find a mentor/sponsor. There is perhaps nothing more valuable than soaking up the wisdom of others who have been in your position or who are in a position in which you want to be. And having an ally who is invested in your career will only increase your chance for success. Finding the right mentor or sponsor doesn’t have to be difficult or intimidating. Start by making a list of people whose career track you’d like to follow, and reach out to them. If no one comes to mind—get out there and network. And remember, your mentor and sponsor may be the same person or different people, and you may have various expectations from them according to the role they are assuming. Keep in mind, too, that as your career goals and plans change, so may your mentors and sponsors.
- Take risks. In her Ted Talk, Reshma Saujani explains that most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure in order to pursue perfection, while boys are taught to take risks and be brave. “And by the time they’re adults,” Saujani says, “whether they’re negotiating a raise or even asking someone out on a date, they’re habituated to take risk after risk. They’re rewarded for it.” The lesson to be learned here is that in order to get what you want, you must get comfortable being uncomfortable. Taking risks will always get you further than the “be complacent and complain”.
- Tune out negativity. Ruth Bader, the second female U.S. Supreme Court Justice, recently published an article in which she explained how she has been so successful in a male-driven world. One piece of advice she offers is that “it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.” She explains that when a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, it’s best to tune it out because reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade. I couldn’t agree more with Ruth. No matter how far you make it your career, there will always be someone who is convinced you don’t belong there. Rather than telling them why you do, let this serve as motivation to climb even higher.
- Take action. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard female colleagues complain that they are never given the opportunity to be in a position of authority. Yet, when industry organizations are seeking volunteer speakers or representatives, they are not the first to volunteer. If you want to be respected, you must put yourself in a position that demands respect. Volunteer. Be responsive. Put yourself out there. Let the world know that you will be taken seriously.
It is not easy, but nothing good ever is.
My hope today is that every woman, at every stage in her career, will adopt this mindset of empowerment. Let’s empower each other. Passing on opportunities (that may not be right for us, in the moment) to other competent, capable women allows us to empower them, which puts us in a position of power as well. Let’s teach the next generation that they need not be defined by gender disparities in the workplace, but rather their talent and willingness to succeed. Let’s effectively advocate for ourselves, take risks, and take action.