Women as chief physicians: How to change the rules of the game

"Medicine is becoming more feminine" you hear. But what does it mean? Prof. Dr Mandy Mangler discusses the daily implications of women in leadership roles.

Translated from the original German version.

Medicine is becoming more female

Medicine is becoming more female - you hear this phrase again and again. At congresses and on podiums. It's true: 60 percent of those who study medicine are women. In gynaecology, there are up to 70 percent women.

But what does that actually mean? Many talented, motivated and highly educated women aspire to the health sector. However, they remain hard to find in the more impactful management levels. They work diligently and without them medicine could never fulfil its task for society, but they habilitate less often, publish scientific papers less often, get professorships less often. In the hospital managements of German universities, only 13 per cent are women university lecturers. I can count the gynaecological full professors on one hand.

When I ask myself why this is so, I see myself sitting at conferences or in meetings, with dozens of men around me, using their own codes in their very own style. They almost seem to be in a world of their own. Of course I can use this language. I have learned it over the years, just like other foreign languages. But I am not a native speaker.

The game is called "hospital management floor"

Apart from the language, the rules of the game also make it difficult for women to progress. We have a game, like a parlour game, e.g. "Monopoly". The game is called "hospital management floor". The rules were created by men at some point. And we women now realise: wait a minute, the rules of the game are not so good for me. They don't suit me, my ideas, my family situation, my wishes about how I want to work.

For example, I often sat in late afternoon meetings of chief physicians, where bread rolls were served and people talked about problems they faced in everyday life. You have to imagine it like a self-help group. So while head doctor XY takes another bread roll, I get increasingly nervous, as I know I still have to (and want to) correct homework, put dinner on the table. My husband and I divide the day in such a way that he is responsible for the children in the morning and I in the afternoon.

Now there are women who are trying to change these rules of the game. These are the "exhausting" women who are annoying and cause trouble. And another voice says within these women: that's too stupid for me. I don't want to fight for my rights every day, it's tedious, it doesn't make sense and it's not worth the trouble. You need a latent warrior mentality to oppose the old system. I have often asked myself what the other chief physicians actually do after these meetings. Of course I appreciate these colleagues, they are smart people with whom I enjoy working. That's also why I asked at some point: what are you actually doing after the bread roll and what are your children doing right now? The picture was clear: none of them had to take care of children or the household. One of the head doctors said that he usually only saw his children on weekends because of work. Another only went home when the children were in bed so as not to disturb them.

An opportunity to change the rules of the game

Chief physician rounds are political. I waited out my probationary period as chief physician - and that was relatively difficult for me. But I had to get through the six months of bread rolls. Then I asked for the chiefs' conferences to be brought forward and to end earlier. The reactions were: Smirks, incomprehension, jokes at my expense (let's meet on Tuesday afternoon, oh, Mandy Mangler can't then, haha.) and up to open aggression. I put up with it all. The conferences now start at 2.30 pm.

This was an opportunity to change the rules of the game. Changes imply that the old system was in need of improvement and that makes the changes painful. But if they are seen as part of an evolution that makes us stronger and better as a society, then perhaps they are no longer so fear-inducing. Thus, we can and must adapt rules to the reality of women's lives so that they are interested in leadership positions and can realise themselves - so that medicine actually becomes more female.