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Penn Women in Cardiology: Breaking barriers and building support for female representation in cardiovascular medicine

Penn Women in Cardiology members enjoy programming at the 2018 Annual FOCUS Fall Conference for Penn Women (pictured left to right: Marielle Scherrer-Crosbie MD, Katherine Kunkel MD, Monika Sanghavi MD , Marietta Ambrose MD, Rupal O'Quinn MD, Sheela Krishnan MD, Nosheen Reza, MD).

Cardiology has long been a male-dominated field, with women making up less than 20 percent of the board-certified and active adult cardiologists in the United States. While the percentage of women in internal medicine training programs in the country has increased over the last 25 years, cardiology has attracted the fewest women and has had the lowest rates of increase in female enrollment into the specialty.

Nosheen Reza, MD, an instructor in Cardiovascular Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine, has made it her mission to tackle these disparities and increase the representation of women in the field.

In 2017, Reza launched Penn Women in Cardiology (Penn WIC) as an organization comprised of female fellows, residents, and faculty to promote the recruitment, retention, and advancement of female cardiologists. Her goal was to break down the barriers that women have been facing nationally in the field by connecting them together as a supportive force. Reza’s specialty-specific effort targets cardiology in particular, while Penn Medicine also has a long-running program, FOCUS on Women's Health and Leadership that supports the advancement of women’s careers in academic medicine more broadly through numerous efforts that include data collection, mentoring and training programs, and collaboration with other medical schools and national committees to foster a more diverse community in academic medicine.

Some of the barriers that Penn WIC seeks to address across the national landscape for cardiologists include wage inequality, bias, discrimination, sexual harassment, lack of institutional support, inadequate workplace support for pregnant and nursing cardiologists, and negative perceptions of the field. “When I was preparing my application for cardiology fellowship as an internal medicine resident, I was discouraged from applying by a couple of male mentors,” Reza said. “This and other experiences inspired me to start Penn WIC as an organization that supports women in cardiology from the moment they first step on campus as a trainee to when they retire. We want to propel women forward from what has historically held them back.”

Oby Ibe, MD, a third-year internal medicine resident at Penn, has had Reza as her mentor since the start of her residency. Ibe was interested in learning more about preventative medicine, particularly for cardiovascular diseases, and the different risk factors for women. “I felt passionate about cardiology when I came to Penn, but there were thoughts like ‘Am I good enough to be a cardiologist?’” Ibe said. “Nosheen sat down and mapped out what I needed to do to prepare for fellowship applications, like people I should connect to and research projects I should work on. This has given me the confidence to say ‘Yes, I am meant to be in this field.’”

Penn Women in Cardiology members participate in Speed Mentoring, in which students, residents, and fellows discuss career development topics with women faculty.

Over the last three years, Penn WIC has offered programming to break down the barriers for women in cardiology, categorized into five pillars: Skill Development, Leadership & Sponsorship, Networking, Mentorship, and Advocacy.

Within Skill Development, workshops that strengthen professional skills are offered to women medical students, residents, fellows, and faculty. “Our objectives are to have mission-driven, goal-oriented events with deliverables at the end,” Reza said. In a skill development workshop led by an expert at the Wharton School of Business, Penn WIC members gained insight into their leadership preferences and learned how to develop skills in conflict resolution and negotiation.

To promote Leadership & Sponsorship among women cardiologists, cardiology fellows are nominated and sponsored to serve on task forces and leadership councils for the American College of Cardiology and other national professional societies, as well as speak at national conferences.

Speed Networking events paired fellows with women faculty to sharpen their elevator pitches when connecting with potential mentors, employers, or collaborators in cardiology, crafting ways to share their research and experience in the field. In addition, there are Special Speaker Sessions where distinguished female faculty in cardiovascular medicine visit with Penn WIC to speak about their careers as successful women in cardiology, sparking more opportunities to network.

“Penn WIC has done a great job creating a supportive and collaborative environment, which is an environment that we want to pass down to future generations of cardiologists,” Ibe said. “I’m already trying to mentor and encourage first and second year Internal Medicine residents to learn more about cardiology.”

Mentorship has been a primary pillar as it brings in supportive connections to help trainees with their career paths. Through programs like Coffee with a Cardiologist, medical students are paired with Penn WIC members to learn more about careers in cardiology, and they are able to shadow fellows and early-career attending cardiologists. Internal medicine interns considering cardiology are connected to Penn WIC members who help them create action plans for residency, learn about the fellowship application process, and offer experiences for clinical cardiology exposure. Reza reports that multiple women residents at Penn have chosen to pursue cardiology in part because of these strong connections in Penn WIC mentorship, and many more have been impacted by these programs.

Penn WIC also advocates for solutions to work-related barriers that female cardiologists experience, such as pregnancy and breastfeeding, which has led to increased numbers of lactation spaces around the health system and the creation of innovative pilot programs for efficient scheduling of highly utilized rooms. Penn WIC has also successfully campaigned to expand parental leave offered to dual physician-trainee couples under the health system’s house staff policy.

Reza has received positive feedback for the organization’s efforts in creating innovative ways to support women in cardiology. “Penn has a large number of female faculty, and it’s rare to have this many women to look up to in cardiology at one institution,” Ibe said. “Being able to have all the female cardiology faculty in one room is incredibly powerful.”

WIC Three
Penn Women in Cardiology members meet with Dr. Michelle Albert (back row, third from left), Professor in Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, during her visit to Penn Medicine in 2019.

Penn WIC hopes to continue to serve as an example to retain future generations of female leaders in cardiovascular medicine, not just at Penn, but nationwide. Reza, along with Sheela Krishnan, MD, and Srinath Adusumalli, MD, MSc, both assistant professors of Cardiovascular Medicine, collaborated on a manuscript published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC) that summarizes the path to create a program like Penn WIC. Reza is also leading an American College of Cardiology webinar on creating a women in cardiology group in the workplace on September 3. Reza hopes the manuscript and webinar will serve as guides for similar programs at other institutions to launch their own career development programs for women cardiologists. 

“I hope that one day Penn WIC is no longer needed and that women are equally represented and integrated in cardiology,” Reza said. “While we are ahead of peer institutions here at Penn, there is still much work to be done, and we are excited to continue to lead the way in these efforts.”

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