Lead­ing ladies of health care thrust into spot­light

Vancouver Sun - - FRONT PAGE - as Sadiya An­sari ex­plains. Sadiya An­sari is a Toronto-based jour­nal­ist and pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism at Cen­ten­nial Col­lege. This ar­ti­cle first ap­peared in Pol­icy Op­tions.

Chil­dren in Prince Ed­ward Is­land re­cently par­tic­i­pated in a su­per­hero-themed vir­tual hang­out, where some dressed up as ... Dr. Heather Mor­ri­son. Mor­ri­son — who has also had a calf named af­ter her — is the prov­ince’s chief pub­lic health of­fi­cer. The COVID-19 pan­demic has made Mor­ri­son and other chief pub­lic health of­fi­cers and chief med­i­cal of­fi­cers celebritie­s, and a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of these ev­i­dence-lov­ing rock stars are women.

They’ve had their faces em­bla­zoned on T-shirts, their por­traits grace street mu­rals, and their news con­fer­ences have in­spired Youtube per­for­mances.

“It’s hum­bling,” Mor­ri­son said in an in­ter­view. “The over­whelm­ing feed­back has been sup­port­ive.”

Of the 14 pro­vin­cial and na­tional chief med­i­cal of­fi­cers and pub­lic health of­fi­cers, seven are women, in­clud­ing Canada’s chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer, Dr. Theresa Tam. There are also women in pub­lic health of­fi­cer roles in ma­jor cities such as Ot­tawa and Toronto.

Over the past weeks, they’ve been serv­ing Cana­di­ans by manag­ing an un­prece­dented in­fec­tious threat while also break­ing down com­plex in­for­ma­tion un­der bright lights in de­mand­ing daily news con­fer­ences that have be­come ap­point­ment tele­vi­sion across the coun­try. Tam now ap­pears in na­tional tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials — a rare plat­form for a pub­lic ser­vant.

Some of the fo­cus on this group of women is friv­o­lous: The frenzy around Al­berta’s chief med­i­cal health of­fi­cer Dr. Deena Hin­shaw’s pe­ri­odic-ta­ble dress, and the Twit­ter ac­count in­spired by Toronto’s Dr. Eileen de Villa’s scarves are just two ex­am­ples. But mostly, there’s been a deep ap­pre­ci­a­tion for these steady fig­ures in these un­steady times.

“They’re trust­wor­thy fig­ures in a time of great anx­i­ety,” said Dr. Leyla Asadi, an Ed­mon­ton-based in­fec­tious dis­ease spe­cial­ist pur­su­ing a PHD in tu­ber­cu­lo­sis elim­i­na­tion strate­gies. “I ap­pre­ci­ate their tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise with­out it be­ing coloured by po­lit­i­cal views.”

There’s hope that the high pro­file af­forded to fe­male chief med­i­cal of­fi­cers could in­flu­ence a gen­er­a­tion of girls be­hind them.

“What we’re see­ing right now will have a huge im­pact on those young girls, not just the 10-yearolds, but even the 16-year-olds and 18-year-olds (who) are think­ing about what they want to study at univer­sity,” said Dr. Jane Philpott, a for­mer fed­eral health min­is­ter and hos­pi­tal chief.

The vast ma­jor­ity of health and so­cial-as­sis­tance work­ers (81.25 per cent) and new med­i­cal stu­dents (55 per cent) are women, but the pro­por­tions of women in lead­er­ship po­si­tions are an­other story. Only 12 per cent of Canada’s deans of medicine were women in num­bers com­piled for 2018-19 — and there have been only seven in the coun­try’s his­tory.

In Canada, Ot­tawa-based re­searcher Ivy Lynn Bourgeault has been col­lect­ing data for a pro­ject with Women and Gen­der Equal­ity Canada. Bourgeault, who holds the Univer­sity of Ot­tawa’s re­search chair in gen­der, di­ver­sity and the pro­fes­sions, says the gen­der lead­er­ship gap is clear: Women are un­der-rep­re­sented in the most pres­ti­gious lead­er­ship roles in health, like deans or CEOS of large re­search hos­pi­tals, and, sec­ond, they are pro­por­tion­ally un­der-rep­re­sented in other lead­er­ship roles.

A Cana­dian Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion re­port out­lin­ing bar­ri­ers to women in the sec­tor will be fa­mil­iar to women across sec­tors: in­grained gen­der ex­pec­ta­tions, im­plicit bias that men make bet­ter lead­ers, ha­rass­ment and a lack of men­tors, to name a few.

These chal­lenges can lead to a lack of con­fi­dence — a dif­fi­cult thing to mea­sure and move the nee­dle on. Dr. Shan­thi John­son, the dean of pub­lic health at the Univer­sity of Al­berta, sees this di­vide start­ing in the class­room. In a pro­gram where 59 per cent of the stu­dents are women, she sees stu­dents who have ca­pac­ity but don’t have the op­por­tu­nity to speak up.

“Even in a class­room sit­u­a­tion, we need to stu­dents who are quiet … to cre­ate that op­por­tu­nity for them to gain that con­fi­dence,” John­son said. “We need to do that across the pipe­line.”

When asked if there were many women lead­ers to look up to as a med­i­cal stu­dent in the early 1980s, Philpott is quick to an­swer: “Def­i­nitely not.”

“When I was in med­i­cal school, (my pro­fes­sors) were al­most en­tirely men,” she said. “And they still are in the higher ranks of lead­er­ship in both med­i­cal schools and hos­pi­tals.”

Philpott at­tributes her con­fi­dence to pur­sue a ca­reer in health to grow­ing up in a safe, lov­ing home, rec­og­niz­ing that she didn’t face bar­ri­ers to ad­vance­ment based on race or other fac­tors that can be even more sti­fling than gen­der. But she says hav­ing role mod­els is also key to be­ing able to see your­self in lead­er­ship roles. That’s part of why she’s look­ing for­ward to step­ping into her new role as dean of health sci­ences at Queen’s Univer­sity in July.

“Mod­el­ling is re­ally crit­i­cal be­cause other­wise, it’s hard to break through,” Philpott says.

While gen­der is cer­tainly not the only de­ter­mi­nant of lead­er­ship style, re­search shows that di­ver­sity in health lead­er­ship ben­e­fits pop­u­la­tion health. In health care, the gaps in lead­er­ship have led to half the pop­u­la­tion be­ing out­right ig­nored. For in­stance, it wasn’t un­til 1997 that Health Canada in­tro­duced guide­lines on in­clud­ing women in phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal tri­als af­ter women’s ad­vo­cates called at­ten­tion to the fact that women were tak­ing drugs tested only on men.

When women step into those roles, re­search shows it “cre­ates a rip­ple ef­fect that ben­e­fits fam­i­lies, com­mu­ni­ties and coun­tries,” as noted by Cor­nell pro­fes­sor of medicine Jen­nifer A. Downs and her co-au­thors in the jour­nal Pub­lic Health Ac­tion. The au­thors use ex­am­ples from In­dia, where fe­male politi­cians pro­moted im­mu­niza­tion, and the United States, where fe­male sen­a­tors spon­sored leg­is­la­tion to en­sure screen­ing of breast and cer­vi­cal can­cer.

Women in these roles of­ten are mo­ti­vated by the seek­ing of eq­uity. It’s a trait that was ev­i­dent in Canada’s ear­li­est fe­male physi­cians, who fought to be in­cluded in med­i­cal schools in or­der to take care of their com­mu­ni­ties. Dr. Amelia Yeo­mans, for in­stance, stud­ied at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan in the late 19th cen­tury be­fore Cana­dian med­i­cal schools ad­mit­ted women. She then prac­tised in Win­nipeg, look­ing at how so­cial and eco­nomic con­di­tions im­pacted the health of the un­em­ployed, sex work­ers and the pri­son pop­u­la­tion.

In Prince Ed­ward Is­land, Mor­ri­son hopes see­ing women like her through­out this cri­sis will have an im­pact on young women con­sid­er­ing a ca­reer in pub­lic health, and it ap­pears she’s al­ready had an im­pact on girls. One of her staff passed on a mes­sage from one: “When I grow up, I want to be like Dr. Mor­ri­son.”

“Maybe they wouldn’t have ever pic­tured do­ing that if they hadn’t seen so many strong, won­der­ful women in these roles,” she said.

This vis­i­bil­ity has been en­cour­ag­ing even for Ed­mon­ton’s Asadi, who is al­ready es­tab­lished in her ca­reer sur­rounded by women lead­ers. “It makes me feel like I could con­trib­ute in this space as well, and why don’t I?”

What we’re see­ing right now will have a huge im­pact on those young girls, not just the 10-year-olds, but even the 16-year-olds and 18-year-olds (who) are think­ing about what they want to study at univer­sity. DR. JANE PHILPOTT, for­mer fed­eral health min­is­ter

Top, from left: Canada’s chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer, Dr. Theresa Tam; Al­berta’s chief med­i­cal health of­fi­cer Dr. Deena Hin­shaw; and Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’S pro­vin­cial health of­fi­cer. Bot­tom, from left, Ot­tawa’s med­i­cal of­fi­cer of health Dr. Vera Etches; Toronto’s Dr. Eileen de Villa; and Dr. Jen­nifer Rus­sell, New Brunswick’s top doc­tor. Of the 14 top doc­tors in Canada, seven of them are women.

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