Female leadership in neonatology: The value of mentorship

A portrait of mentorship in neonatology: Sola-Visner and Davenport pose in the office in front of a whiteboard.
Martha Sola-Visner, MD, and Patricia Davenport, MD, enjoy a strong mentoring relationship where benefits flow in both directions. (Photos: Michael Goderre, Boston Children’s Hospital)

While the majority of neonatologists are women, women make up a far smaller proportion of neonatologists in leadership positions. A recent national survey led by Kristen Leeman, MD, in the Division of Newborn Medicine at Boston Children’s and Lindsay Johnston, MD, at Yale, finds that many female neonatologists face roadblocks to career development. They often miss out on speaking engagements, career guidance, additional training, networking opportunities, and above all, mentors.

To learn more about their needs, Leeman and her colleagues contacted nearly 4,000 female neonatologists from the AAP-affiliated Women in Neonatology group and a Facebook group for female neonatologists. They received 451 survey responses, revealing several additional challenges:

  • gender-based salary discrepancies, reported by 49 percent of respondents
  • delayed promotion (37 percent)
  • harassment by colleagues (31 percent), trainees (8 percent), staff (24 percent), and patient families (32 percent)
  • lack of an established mentor (61 percent).

Female neonatologists also tend to struggle more than their male counterparts with work/life balance issues, Leeman notes, making it hard to advance. “Women commented on child care stress and burnout,” she says. “The supports are not there at vulnerable times in their careers. It’s a leaky pipeline.”

Building a mentoring program for female neonatologists

Leeman and Johnston decided to address what they see as the key missing ingredient — mentors.

“Both of us have had the benefit of superb mentorship, which has been integral to our careers,” says Leeman. “We wanted to offer an opportunity for all women across the U.S. to have access to female role models to help mentor them through different elements of their careers.”

Leeman, co-leader of the neonatology mentorship program, in the NICU
Kristen Leeman, MD

With colleagues across the country, they created the National Women in Neonatology Mentorship Program. Bringing together senior, mid-career, and junior neonatologists, the year-long pilot program, which concludes in August, has three goals:

  • to provide resources to facilitate career advancement and professional and personal satisfaction
  • to identify strategies to help female neonatologists gain appropriate compensation, promotions, and professional recognition
  • to foster a feeling of community.

In virtual and in-person meetings, the program’s 250-plus participants read and discuss materials, hear speakers, share their thoughts and experiences, network, offer mutual encouragement, and consult with mentors. The program has various subgroups, including groups for women practicing in community NICUs, groups for specific interests like global health or lab research, and groups for women from backgrounds that tend to be underrepresented in medicine.

Neonatology mentorship at Boston Children’s: Balancing medicine, research, and family

Patricia Davenport, MD, and Martha Sola-Visner, MD, neonatologists at Boston Children’s, illustrate the value of mentorship. As a junior faculty member, Davenport found herself juggling her clinical, research, and family responsibilities. In addition to caring for patients in the NICU, she joined Sola-Visner’s lab to conduct research on neonatal platelet transfusions. Sola-Visner quickly became a mentor.

“Martha’s mentorship has been crucial to me,” Davenport says. “She values her patients, her research, and her family. Holding those three things equally in your hands is really important. I had never done basic science before and needed a lot of mentoring, not just at the bench but also writing and presenting.”

Neonatology mentorship in action: Davenport and Sola-Visner review data on the computer.
Davenport discusses her data with Sola-Visner.

Whether it’s an unfortunate patient outcome, an experiment that didn’t work, or a family emergency, Sola-Visner has been a vital support and sounding board. And the benefits of mentorship flow in both directions.

“I’m established now, and at this stage in my career, seeing other people progress and move forward is the most rewarding part of what I do,” says Sola-Visner. “Making sure that the people who I’ve mentored are succeeding becomes more and more important over time. I get great joy to see that.”

Davenport is also an enthusiastic participant in the national pilot mentorship program, where she is part of a subgroup on basic science.

“We talk about funding difficulties, how to organize a lab, wellness, how to care for yourself,” she says. “There’s a real sense of community across the nation. You’re always asking, ‘am I good enough?’ and it’s nice to hear other women having the same thoughts and feelings of ‘imposter syndrome.’ But we’re all doing good work.”

Learn more about the Division of Newborn Medicine

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