Shattering Radiology’s Glass Ceiling

My experience as the first female chief in an all-male program.shattering glass ceiling

I was sitting in the CT reading room when I received the text message from my Program Director…"Congratulations Chief!"

 One would expect to feel pure elation when receiving such news. No doubt, a part of me was incredibly humbled and honored. Yet, a part of me had this “oh no” moment.

It is well known that the role of a chief resident is often thankless, time consuming, and frankly, exhausting at times. But in addition to the stressors the role entails, I had an additional challenge: serving as the first female chief in an all-male program. The decision as to who would be the chief resident was based on a vote by both residents and faculty, so it was fair without campaigning involved. But would that support translate to the role I would be assuming for the entire academic year? I would soon find out.

From the beginning, I did not take the role lightly, largely because I knew how unique this opportunity was for me. It is well documented in literature that the percentage of women in radiology has remained at about 25 percent for the past twenty years with no significant increase. So the fact that I was elected to serve in this role was very awe-inspiring. Not to mention, being a female chief in an all-male program is extremely rare in radiology, let alone any medical subspecialty.

Women are often stereotyped as timid or lacking in the skills to be assertive when in the presence of a male, and that when resolute, she may be perceived as cold. Therefore, I realized very early on that I needed to figure out a fine balance so that I could retain my reputation of being affable and approachable yet tough but fair, so that no one would take advantage of me.

But this was easier said than done. There were times that certain requests were made by the residents and although I would say these requests were “not possible at this time” or “non-negotiable,” the residents persisted with their pursuits and ignored my decision. At times I questioned whether they were unrelenting on this because they felt that women are push-overs, or did they feel that I’m inherently  a pushover and it has nothing to do with gender?

There were times that boundaries were skirted as though the rules didn’t apply to them such as when a call or rotation scheduling change could not be accommodated despite my best efforts but the resident would still go to the program director to change his mind although we had already extensively deliberated on behalf of that resident. Of course, with my role placing me as the “middle man” between residents and faculty, I felt quite frustrated. It felt as though we would never reach any sort of compromise. Did they skirt boundaries because they felt I wouldn’t be as assertive as a man and thus they felt they could get away with it? However, when situations such as these arose, the end result was always establishing compromise, no matter how long and arduous the path was to get there. I wanted to create a formidable environment where all parties could be satisfied, even if it took more effort on my part to accomplish this.

This is not to say that my work as chief resident was not gratifying. There were times of pure exhaustion, but the outcome was wonderful — and as a team we accomplished great things, such as working with faculty to ensure our curriculum was restructured based on the ABR Core Study guide.

There were also times of pure kismet where we all came together from the get-go, particularly when it came to strengthening our program and being great advocates, such as during interview season.

In the end, I can honestly say it was one of the most gratifying years of my professional life thus far. I learned so much about myself including the strength and loyalty I possess. I also learned a great deal during that year, including patience, compromise and respect. I worked tirelessly for my co-residents until the very last minute of my term…and I am proud of that. But most importantly, I developed such strong relationships with my co-residents, and they in turn became my brothers. These strong relationships developed from an ultimate mutual understanding of one another and stalwart respect which built the foundation, in turn assisting me in overcoming any gender divide.

I think when it comes to women in leadership positions, people sometimes assume an “us” versus “them” mentality where men aren’t always supportive of women, are secretly jealous, and aren’t in favor of supporting their cause. I am a prime example where that was not the case and did not reflect the “status quo.” Sure, there were additional challenges that extended outside of our residency program. I experienced more conservative, older, referring physicians assuming I was there as a nurse, secretary or a scribe for the male residents, simply there to jot down notes. I also encountered individuals not taking me seriously because I am a shorter woman with a small frame and a higher pitched voice. But what I can say is that I always had unwavering support from my co-residents and faculty which lifted me up during those trying times and that meant everything to me.

So, although women certainly are not dominating radiology in terms of number, in time, we will hopefully see a meaningful change. In the meantime, we women as the minority in our field can make an impact, not only at the trainee level but at any career level as long as we are willing to accept challenges in the workplace that present themselves or any opportunity that may help us grow in our careers or as a person. We must not shy away from these roles because they may have an incredibly transformative result in your career not only when it comes to you as an individual, but your relationships  with your colleagues. Overall, I am so glad I took on the challenge, and I hope other young women like me out there facing similar opportunities rise to the occasion because we need their leadership and inspiration to move our field forward, shattering radiology’s glass ceiling until there is no ceiling left.

By Amy Patel, MD, Former Chief Resident at the University of Kansas-Wichita, Current Breast Radiology Fellow at Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology Washington University in Saint Louis

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