American Society of Hematology

A Post-Modern View of Women in Hematology: A Focus on Work/Life Balance

Lanie Francis, MD

Published on: July 01, 2012

Hematologist/Oncologist UPMC Cancer Centers and Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

The concept of work-life balance is everywhere these days. In blogs, newspapers, and throughout professional societies, the topic is being discussed and debated. Several months ago, a friend gave me a book titled, “Good Enough Is the New Perfect.” The authors are working professionals with children who have honed a philosophy to simultaneously bring satisfaction to the workplace and the home. Skeptical, I began to read it in the moments before nodding off. Ultimately, I found the advice compelling and the anecdotes relatable.

Naturally, I began to examine my own situation as a part-time hematologist/oncologist and mother to Oliver, age 5, and Julian, age 3. Reflecting on the start of my career, I looked to an article I wrote for The Hematologist in May 2007 titled “Women in Hematology — Where Are We Today?” At the time, I was a hematology/oncology fellow and first-time mother of a three-month-old. Aspects of hematology have changed in this interval, from new drugs and new guidelines, to concerns over drug shortages and cost constraints. How has the field changed for women? Are there new ways to approach the “work” component of the work-life balance conundrum to better accommodate one’s personal and professional goals? What strides have we made, and what new challenges do we face? Is there a successful formula for being a physician, mother, and so much more all at the same time? Let’s start by going back seven years.

When I interviewed Barbara M. Alving MD, then acting director of the National Center for Research Resources at the National Institutes of Health, her perspective and advice, based on more than two decades of experience, were particularly insightful. She spoke of the value of women’s communication and socializing skills in developing collaborations that move projects forward. She warned against giving up in the face of rejection and urged women in the field to “pick yourself up, keep showing up, and keep publishing papers.” She stressed the importance of nurturing a strong family; and she urged me, as a fellow female hematologist, to think strategically about time commitments, to get help with tasks not essential to career or family life, and to always provide time for myself.

Many female physicians have taken her advice, as well as that of other thoughtful male and female mentors. In doing so, we have created successful hematology careers in academic medicine, private practice, and industry. And yet, the story does not end there. Research journals and the lay press continue to inform us that, across many professional contexts, women do not negotiate, self-promote, or earn wages concordant with their male colleagues. Because of the time and resources invested in education and training, most female physicians choose to work. However, many limit or opt out of career development and leadership roles through childrearing years. Because many women have delayed starting families during the rigors of training, their optimal childrearing years coincide with the optimal period for career development. The negative result of this convergence appears to be fewer female leaders and mentors. The positive result just may be a generation of more satisfied, balanced, and organized women physicians.

I gathered advice and anecdotes from several women in hematology and oncology, as well as from women in non-medical professions. These women have developed, in their own way, a work-life situation that brings stimulation, satisfaction, and variability. They are at the leading edge of a movement to promote an environment of tolerance, modernism, and flexibility so that many of our best and brightest professionals can enrich the workplace with their unique attitudes and skill sets. From these women, my own experience, and my friends and colleagues, I offer up a framework for the ongoing effort to strike a balance that fits and sticks.

Build your framework by RE-FRAMING

Hollee Temple is an attorney, professor, and co-author of Good Enough is the New Perfect. The book draws on the authors’ survey of more than 900 working mothers. The authors postulate that re-framing the working mother’s mindset from “never enough” to “good enough” allows women to be more satisfied with their choices, and ultimately achieve success without sacrificing in the home or the workplace.

Do what makes you HAPPY

In an article appearing on the American College of Physicians (ACP) website titled “Women in Medicine: Work Life Balance,” Dr. Janis Blair, an internist and infectious disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, AZ, calls her life demanding, but exactly the life she wants to lead. Her decision to rearrange and prioritize has served her well and helped her find balance in what she calls “a marathon, not a sprint.” Read the article here.

Ask for what you NEED

In the same article, Dr. Cecily Peterson of Olympia, WA, talks of how she gleaned essential information on how to find balance from watching her husband, also a physician. She said, “I learned from my husband that it is reasonable to ask. He is not afraid to say ‘I need this’ and be insistent.” Her advice for negotiations, another tricky area for women physicians, is to talk about your own strengths. Dr. Margaret Ragni, a long-time friend and mentor who is active in ASH, told me early on that in order to shape your career and life, you must often tell others how it is going to be. She elaborated by explaining that no one knows what you need more than you, so kindly and gently show your colleagues the way. She advises facing obstacles by humanizing those with whom you disagree and notes that, “working toward common goals becomes easy when you make adversaries into friends.”

Take care of YOURSELF

One of my mentors during fellowship, Dr. Irene Ghobrial, another active member of ASH, has fashioned a successful translational career at a highly competitive institution. In her career, she has pushed forward, seemingly without fear, always with a smile and a palpable hum of enthusiasm. She passed on to me this advice from her mentor: “develop rhino skin.” She elaborated that removing emotion and personalization from criticism turns it into advice.

Be ORGANIZED and GET HELP

Dr. Kathleen Beekman is a part-time oncologist with three children that range in age from two to seven years old. She manages her life with “a small cadre of helpers from the indefatigable nanny and college babysitter to my mother-in-law.” She told me about her weekly Sunday night emails detailing the schedules of her brood. The email includes when her daughter needs her leotard or violin, the nightly dinner plan, and when and where the children need to be picked up. The email goes out to her husband, the sitters, and anyone else involved in the family’s activities. In doing this, Katie plans her week and anticipates gaps that can create stress for her at work or at home. This proactive mentality works for her and has even changed her perspective on attributes she finds admirable in colleagues. She writes, “As a patient, I purposely look for women physicians with children who are part-time. They are more patient, more fastidious, and generally I trust them more because I think this is a smart choice.”

Pull it all TOGETHER

Personally, I have found a sense of exhilaration, creativity, and motivation from my multi-faceted life. Being a physician helps me love to be a mother, and being a mother helps me love to be a physician. I have become more empathetic, decisive, and thoughtful because of my dual roles. Since I collaborate and innovate at home in order to nurture a cheerful and productive family life, I also seek to do so in the workplace. As new generations of women and men scientists and physicians join our ranks, we do them a service by showing them that there are a variety of ways to find balance, provided one defines balance as an overall sense of equanimity, equilibrium, and satisfaction.

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