Misunderstood to Ms. Understood: Hopes and Goals of a Woman in Medicine

Misunderstood to Ms. Understood: Hopes and Goals of a Woman in Medicine

By Elizabeth Russ, MD


Being female and living in a male-dominated world can be complicated. We often feel misunderstood; our equality efforts are about building up women, not tearing down men. 


Elizabeth Russ, MD
Elizabeth Russ, MD

Women have come a long way in the world of medicine. As I am sure many of you know, women make up 50.5% of U.S. medical students. Unfortunately, radiology has lagged woefully behind with only 26% in the field being female. The percentage of those in leadership positions is even lower; I have seen numbers ranging from 10% to 17%. I am a diagnostic radiologist beginning my 10th year out of musculoskeletal fellowship, a specialty that is also extremely male dominated. (I’m a glutton for punishment.)


Role models and mentorship are so important. I decided at age 10 that I wanted to be a physician. I excelled in science and biology, and I admired my aunt, who is a physician. From a very early age, I would go with my mother to visit her sister at the hospital. I saw a strong woman who helped patients. People respected and trusted her. I didn’t know anything about bias or glass ceilings; I simply saw someone who looked like me doing what I wanted to do, so I set my goals and worked toward them.


‘Hey, cupcake, where’s the doctor?’


The funny thing about gender bias, and, I would argue, gender disparity, is that both are learned processes. We are not born knowing about either. Through society and cultural norms, however, they become part of our daily fabric. In all honesty, I didn’t encounter much bias until I was deep within medicine, during medical school on clinical rounds. That is when the comments started. “How are you going to have children and a career?” “You’re too pretty and will never be taken seriously.” “Hey, cupcake, where’s the doctor?” Others aren’t fit for print. It was only then that I began to see I was “different” and definitely underrepresented. The thing is, though, I knew what I wanted and what the end game was. No one was going to stand in my way. I learned to get a thick skin very quickly in the medical world, especially as a woman.


I was asked how to succeed in leadership, and while I certainly do not have all the answers, I can share what worked for me. Diversity and involvement throughout life is key. From a very early age I participated in a wide range of extracurricular activities. I read voraciously. I can talk with just about anyone. Some of the greatest lessons I have learned have come from sports. Learning to function as a team will never be a negative. I held various leadership positions throughout high school, college, and medical school, including serving as chief resident. At 39 years old, I was asked to take over as department chair of my group.


What was the bane of my mother’s existence when I was a child has worked well for me as an adult. I don’t take “no” for an answer. I stand by my values, and I am unrelenting in my pursuit of the best patient care. I think others see that. As long as your intentions are in the right place, people will value your opinions. I try to lead by example and build up everyone on the team, as this benefits all involved.


Leadership at this level can be a struggle. I often feel like an imposter. I look around the conference table (or Teams screen) and not many others look like me. That makes me both proud and sad: proud of achieving what I have but wanting other women and young girls to know that they can do it, too.


You can’t be someone else


A large part of why I got to where I am is that I never stopped to think I could not. You have to believe in yourself. If not, why should you expect anyone else to believe in you? You also have to stay true to yourself. I still struggle with this one. As I got older and saw all the other men around the table, I felt like I had to act and talk like them, but that wasn’t me; it felt inauthentic and did not work. I finally realized that I have reached this point in my life by simply being myself and I needed to own it.


As women in the medical and professional world, I think we are often misunderstood. My being direct in a conversation is interpreted as aggressive, whereas if a man were to say the same thing, it would be thought of as assertive. One key to overcoming misunderstandings is to develop a trusting relationship with co-workers. If they know you have their best interests at heart, it will be a much easier road.


I’m constantly reevaluating. One should not be so confident as to lose sight that there are new and changing ways to perform tasks. What can I do better for my team? What direction are we heading? Where did I go wrong? Accept failure. Reframe the concept, and think of it as experience and something you can learn from and build on each day.


Being a leader is all about your mindset and, frankly, not about gender. It is about hard work and determination. Whether you’re a man or a woman, work ethic, accountability, integrity, and a little moxie will take you far. I am sure of it.


Dr. Russ is a board-certified radiologist and radiology department chair at Cleveland Clinic Mercy Hospital in Canton, Ohio. She serves on the radiology residency clinical competency committee and is actively involved in resident education. She completed her undergraduate training at Mount Union University in Alliance, Ohio, followed by medical school at the American University of the Caribbean. After her residency in diagnostic radiology at NEOMED/Aultman/Mercy Affiliated Hospitals in Canton, she completed fellowship training in musculoskeletal radiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Russ was in private practice for nine years prior to her group joining the Cleveland Clinic Imaging Institute. Dr. Russ promotes radiology as a career choice for women and encourages women to pursue leadership positions. In her free time, she enjoys being outdoors, exercising, traveling, and watching football. She can be found on Instagram and Twitter @ellieann21md and her email address is russe2@ccf.org.

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