“Lean In” as an Underrepresented Medical Professional

lean inWhile reading the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, I was mesmerized by her insight about the self perpetuating difficulties women face during their careers; however, something was missing. Mrs. Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, wrote an enlightening novel about the differences in mindset between the genders and how this hinders women in their career. I found that she was spot on with my experience as a woman pursuing medicine. Like Mrs. Sandberg, I too suffered from the “imposter syndrome”. I also wondered about how to appropriately find a mentor, and even worried about planning my career around starting a family that I did not even have. Wow! How did she know?  Her points were extremely helpful and reassuring. However, I felt that my experience was slightly different than her own as I am a woman of an underrepresented ethnicity in the field of medicine. As I read through the novel, I thought about my own barriers to achieving success.

In the book, Sheryl Sandberg talks about the “imposter syndrome”. She explains that some women believe their success is solely due to working hard, getting help, or just getting “lucky”. However, she found that men were comfortable admitting that they are talented and intelligent. As African American women, many of us may feel this way as well.  But, we and our male counterparts have an added burden. We ask ourselves: “Did they accept me because they need to fulfill a diversity quota?” “Did I get accepted into this prestigious college because of affirmative action.” We duck the discussion of affirmative action on the college campus, fearing others may think we do not deserve to be there.

I have had my own experiences with this type of modified imposter syndrome. I was asked to do summer research in organic chemistry while in college. I was ecstatic! Then my professor followed the offer with, “We have a grant we would like to apply for, and we can only do it with a minority student.” I was crushed.  I thought, “Does this mean he does not think I am competent enough to belong in the lab?” “Was I only asked because they had scholarship money to give away?”

Mrs. Sandberg addressed the imposter syndrome with a remark about there being no affirmative action for women, and she got where she was by merit. Even the guru of equality sees affirmative action as an unjust advantage. However, what she did not explain is that many students have advantages. Some applicants have had a parent or sibling attend the school which gives them a boost towards admission. Some students’ parents can pay full tuition; which can influence acceptance. Other students grow up in a community or attend schools that focus on college preparation more than others. There are many advantages that aid people along the way. Many of us have had some kind of advantage that made our resume stand out. Therefore, it does not matter how you got there. It matters how you will utilize your resources and strategize your career. What matters is what you will do once you are accepted. What you will accomplish, what legacy you will leave behind. When you finish, you want the administration to think, “Thank goodness we accepted her.”

Mrs. Sandberg has another incredibly useful chapter that discusses searching for a mentor. She explains that just asking a person in your field of interest to be your mentor is not the most effective approach. You can establish a mentor relationship by asking them well thought out, straight to the point questions. Finding a mentor can be tricky as Sheryl points out. She also explains that having many mentors is important; it does take a village. I was able to find mentors by attending many events and programs in order to network with different people. I met mentors at the SNMA conferences, the Summer Medical Education Program, while conducting research, and during my clinical rotations. As underrepresented students and professionals in medicine, we may be tempted to only find someone that looks like us. To be honest, the mentors that influenced my path to medicine are men and women from different backgrounds. They look nothing like me, but we shared a common interest. Through that interest, I was able to benefit from their profound advice and support.  My mother’s mentor was a man from a different background who loved infectious disease and pushed his residents to always do the right thing. She still keeps up with her beloved mentor after almost forty years.

Sheryl has additional useful advice regarding not holding yourself back in your career. She claims that women tend to limit their career goals for a family they do not even have yet. Actually, she explains, being in a leadership position gives you more flexibility for family life. This is true for minorities in medicine as well; however, as underrepresented professionals we may be holding back for additional reasons. We may not be considering opportunities in places with low diversity. I spoke with a physician who helped guide me when he was a medical student; and he explained his dilemma about wanting to leave Boston:

“There are not many activities with diversity here,” he explained, “D.C. has much more going on.” I said, “Well, if everything is going well here, you might as well stay. “Pursuing a place just because you think every minority is having a ball every day, may not be the best reason.” “There is especially no reason to leave if you have no specific reason to live somewhere else.”

In addition to this point, places with great diversity will always be there, but specific opportunities that can influence your goals may not. In my opinion, there may be places off the beaten path with low diversity that can be a surprisingly good fit. It is also uplifting for the underrepresented children in those places to see an underrepresented professional in their town. Knowing that someone who looks like you can succeed is a powerful motivator.

After reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, I gained a new perspective on how to articulate difficulties I have while pursuing my career goals. I am grateful to her for her candor regarding her life experiences. However, we as underrepresented professionals in medicine have unique barriers to consider. We may be holding ourselves back in pursuing our careers with self perpetuating hindrances. As a solution, we must optimize our resources regardless of the reason we have them. In addition, it helps to create a diverse support system based on your interests; and this may not always be in a place that is familiar. As future and current clinicians, we should lean in with the best strategies and confidence to build our legacy.