A scroll through the Timeline of Discovery from Harvard Medical School, which highlights key moments of medical discovery from 1799 until 2019, doesn’t mention a woman’s name until 2009. From 2009 on, only four other female researchers’ names appear in the timeline as research leaders. And while it might appear from this timeline that women haven’t had an impact on medicine, a quick jump to Yale Medical’s magazine tells us that women – especially women of color – have always played a critical role in healthcare as physicians, midwives, writers, educators, and beyond. (They just haven’t always led in the headlines.)

Like in many other fields, women in healthcare have faced the consequences of a stark gender gap. The female-identifying healthcare providers of today are no different, but like modern women in general, their barriers, expectations, and demands have shifted.

One key factor in what those barriers look like today is tenure. We tapped the Mindset Engine1, our proprietary intelligence platform powered by Syneos Health, to better understand the experiences of female HCPs depending on how long they’ve been in their profession.

For female HCPs with less than 20 years of tenure: 

Peer pressure is real.

This group is highly motivated by their peers – meaning they are motivated by their peers’ opinions of them. They want to be seen by them as being good at their jobs. They are also more likely to turn to their peers for community and advice and are highly influenced by what they learn from them. 

For female HCPs with more than 20 years of tenure: 

Patient opinions take precedence.

The Mindset Engine shows a dramatic shift once female HCPs get past the 20-year mark in their careers: Instead of seeking validation from their peers first and foremost, they seek it from their patients above all. In fact, they value their patients so much that one of their main concerns is that they don’t have enough time to spend with them. 

Some light desk research also tells us that these groups face generation-specific barriers, as well:

Millennial motivations. 

Contextually speaking, women have been burned by “hustle culture,” a concept that glorifies being overworked and reinforces an unrealistic image of success. Because women face more unconscious bias and are often expected to carry most of the mental load of managing a household, they are starting to choose differently and seek careers that provide more work/life balance.

For those with less tenure, the need for peer validation, coupled with the pressures and expectations of “having it all” as women suggests that while there might simply be an underlying lack of confidence in female physicians who are earlier into their career, there is also a good chance that women are simply swimming upstream in an industry that wasn’t created for their success.

Retirement is coming early.

A study by Doximity claims that COVID-19 has “had a disproportionate impact on women physicians, with 25% of them reporting they are ‘considering early retirement’ But COVID-19 isn’t the only reason for women leaving the healthcare industry early. If female physicians survive the first 20 years of their career despite the unique challenges they face, issues like the widening pay gap continue to reinforce that their time isn’t as valuable as their male counterparts.

These HCPs also face some shared barriers due to the gender inequalities in the healthcare industry overall, such as:

Lack of belonging and recognition.

  • We know from the Mindset Engine that female HCPs, especially those with less tenure, highly value belonging. When the industry doesn’t foster this connection, it’s easier for them to become disengaged.
  • When female HCPs are overlooked and not recognized for their work, they can begin to question their contributions which impacts their confidence.

Intrinsic practices that that quietly nudge them out.

Industry-wide gender gaps are complicated and deeply rooted. While we, as healthcare communicators, can’t solve these issues on our own, we have a responsibility to do what we can to drive equality. Amanda Joly, EVP of Integrated Strategy out of GSW Columbus, shared her perspective on ways healthcare brands can make an impact:

Address disparities head-on.

Brands do not do enough to address burn-out and other psycho-social dynamics that impact physicians, especially females and women of color. Acknowledging these realities in an authentic and honest way, whether in your website content plan or through a campaign, would help validate this audience. Feeling seen and cared for could be the first step toward helping all female HCPs find ways to re-engage with their careers, and the brand.

Anchor your brand in context.

As a brand strategist, I strive to ensure I’m thinking about cultural dynamics and the impact it has on people, including physicians, but accounting for cultural considerations and unconscious biases in our work can sometimes be more than clients are prepared for – they still focus narrowly on how the HCP will interact with their brand as a product, versus truly understanding aspirations and context associated with their HCP customers. We must keep pushing ourselves and our clients to identify cultural understandings and possible biases at play to ensure that our ideas connect in the most relevant ways possible.

Diversify your sales force.

Pharma needs to diversify its front lines: the sales force. It’s not enough to have female reps. In order to truly foster a sense of belonging, hire women of color. Hire reps who identify as non-binary. Hire people who are neurodiverse. If your brand is already doing this work, it’s worth talking about. Maybe you’ve invested in programs with medical schools to attract a more diverse student base, or maybe you’re doing work to change clinical trial recruitment. Publish your data on DE&I initiatives to demonstrate your commitment to closing the gaps between genders in our industry.

1Syneos Health Proprietary Mindset Engine Healthcare Provider Behavioral Study 2022. The study includes 7,200 healthcare providers with a nationally representative sample of physicians in the United States by specialty including 329 Oncologist HCPs in the United States. The study was conducted utilizing an online panel of healthcare providers which fielded February 8th, 2022 through October 24th 2022. At the overall study level, the margin of error is +/- 1.2% at a 95% confidence level. 

About the Author:

Kelly Abrams, Content Strategy Director at Syneos Health Communications, has a deep curiosity for what drives human behavior and is passionate about telling stories that connect the dots between data and the everyday. Prior to her career at Syneos, Kelly helped clients build brand loyalty and communicate with purpose in industries like retail, healthcare, and higher education.