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Emerging Women Leaders (EWL)

two women talking

I would not be in my position today without good career mentoring and sponsoring. Throughout my entire professional life, I have benefitted enormously from colleagues who have given their time to provide guidance, advice and council about my career. They have strongly advocated for me and my skills whenever they felt necessary.

When speaking to colleagues, especially female colleagues, it seems that I have been lucky, that my experience does not represent the majority of those in my profession, public health. I would like to see everyone, especially women and women of color, have the options of good mentorship and sponsorship throughout their career and that providing good career mentorship and sponsorship become an essential element of every institution of higher education. This is why I helped develop Emerging Women Leaders, a new career mentorship program for the doctoral program at Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH).

The problem

In the field of health and healthcare globally, women constitute more than 70% of health workers around the world but hold few leadership positions. In the United States, one out of 10 hospital CEOs as well as only 1 out of 5 healthcare companies board members are women. For instance, in 2014 one fourth of all directors of global health centers at the top 50 US medical schools were women; only 25% (14/54) of African ministers of health are women. A recent publication on diversity in public health called “More talk than action: gender and ethnic diversity in leading public health institutions” shows clear gender and ethnic disparities remaining at the most senior academic positions.

Much has been written about the relevance of having a good career mentorship and sponsorship in general and specifically about the importance of fostering diversity in leadership. The National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) recently concluded that mentorship is critical to advance diversity within the STEM field. If we care about diversity and want to promote more diversity reflected in all parts of society, including public health, why is so little attention given to career mentorship and sponsorship as a strategy to advance it?

One of the key reasons of the lack of diversity is the inadequacy of institutional recognition of good mentorship and sponsorship, according to the NASEM’s 2019 report. For example, in academia, research dollars raised for the academic institution, publications and, teaching awards—depending on the institution and faculty track—are the key elements to decide whether faculty are promoted. Institutional accolades in the form of annual reports and awards feature those who have raised millions of research dollars for the institution. Celebrating good mentorship is less well-established and, if done, received as lower stature. Hence, institutions spend less effort in creating career mentoring for students and faculty.

What can be done about it?

Creating career mentor and sponsorship opportunities to promote diversity in the workforce takes effort and resources. It needs to be underpinned by institutional structures and cultures that recognize the importance of it and proudly features it as one of their institutional strengths. Over the last two years I have been privileged to collaborate with several doctoral students at my home institution, Boston University School of Public Health, to develop a novel career mentorship program: Emerging Women Leaders (EWL). It is a “grassroots effort,” the result of many doctoral students over the years mentioning to me the need for good career mentorship, especially with female doctoral students. Key questions students have, include how to balance family and career, how to advocate for oneself, how to make best use of one professional achievement to progress in their careers; however, there is little space to discuss these questions with their peers and faculty. Although all the doctoral students at my institution have their academic advisors to guide them on the development of their thesis, the advising about their thesis often leaves little time and space to discuss career development benefitting from targeted skill-building efforts in career planning and advising.

The goal of EWL is to support BUSPH doctoral students to develop and grow into thriving, productive, and engaged leaders and scholars in their field. All BUSPH, DrPH and PhD students are eligible regardless of gender. As the focus of this program is to foster women leadership, we particularly encourage women to enroll.

EWL adopts a multi-pronged approach by organizing themed workshops, networking events connecting doctoral students and potential mentors, career and leadership training. EWL assigns each mentee to a mentorship circle, a group of three to five mentees who are matched with a mentor based on career interests, prior experiences and areas of interests. Four meetings are held throughout the calendar year at the convenience of the mentor and the mentees.

Although the first year has been a time of growth, learning and adjustment, the program has already received great reviews from mentees and mentors. As we enter our second pilot year, we are starting to enroll new doctoral students in mentorship circles.

How you can engage

Promoting diversity in institutions takes initiative, effort and resources. If you are interested in joining the efforts of EWL as donor, advocate or mentee, please contact idea hub to set up some time to discuss. EWL welcomes your support and enthusiasm to build a program that makes a difference.

Dr. Veronika J. Wirtz, is a Professor in the Department of Global Health at the Boston University School of Public Health, where she is also Director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center in Pharmaceutical Policy. Her research focuses on health system strengthening and policy and program evaluations of medicines access and utilization. 

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