How Female Medical Professionals Could Reshape the Gender Conversation in 2020

Christine Matthews | Mar 27, 2020


During this terrible pandemic, state leaders have been at the forefront of the response – announcing social distancing orders, updating citizens on new Covid-19 cases, and outlining the status of the state’s health care systems and preparedness.

Most governors are giving daily televised briefings along with key officials. In many cases, these key officials are the states’ public health directors, most of whom have been appointed by their governor.

While just nine governors (18%) are women, more than sixty percent of state health directors are female. Typically working behind the scenes, these state public health directors are now standing shoulder-to-shoulder (while six-feet away) with governors as the public face of the crisis response working to educate and calm an anxious public.

In twenty states, voters have never elected a woman governor so they have not seen a woman in the top executive position. The Barbara Lee Family Foundation has consistently found that voters have been more comfortable seeing women serve as members of a legislature than they have been electing them to executive offices — positions where they will have sole decision-making authority. Women candidates have to prove they are qualified. For men, their qualifications are assumed.

In thirteen of the twenty states that have not elected a woman governor (CA, CO, GA, ID, IL, IN, MN, NV, ND, PA, TN, WV and WI), female medical professionals lead their state’s public health departments.

If there is something positive that could come from this awful time it is that we may see more women elected to executive office in 2020 and beyond as voters are now seeing daily examples of highly qualified women in key leadership roles during a crisis.

Being able to handle a crisis is one of the key factors voters say is important to them when selecting a candidate for executive office according to public opinion research conducted by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.

By demonstrating calm – a counter to stereotypes that women may be too emotional as leaders – and skilled competence, these newly high profile female medical professionals are showcasing the qualities that define leadership.

Women, however, have the additional hurdle of needing to come across as likeable and empathetic and there is evidence that these female medical professionals have overcome this hurdle. In Ohio, the state’s director of public health, Dr. Amy Acton, now has a Facebook fan page with over 72,000 followers (growing daily). Organizers wrote: “This group is comprised of grateful and concerned citizens who admire Dr. Amy Acton’s medical expertise and compassion. We believe she is to be commended and recognized for her excellence in pandemic leadership.” One Facebook fan even made a chalk drawing of Dr. Acton in a red cape.

While these public health professionals may not, themselves, decide to seek elective office, they  just might be paving the way for other women to achieve success in higher office. In my opinion, they all deserve red capes.

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