A study on women’s leadership by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. 2021 found that American women held 41% of corporate management positions, and women are still battling underrepresentation when it comes to board and CEO positions. They also face gender bias, harassment and opposition to their management styles.
Here’s how one MIT alumna rolled back those stats and used what she learned along the way to help the people behind her.
Christine Tsien Silvers; SB ’91, SM ’93, PhD ’00, MD ’01 (Harvard Medical School), clinical informatics leader and healthcare executive consultant at Amazon Web Services
How is your professional life as a woman in the workplace different from how you imagined it when you started your career?
When I started my career, I worked about eight daily emergency room shifts a month to feel personally satisfied with my professional life, while also being able to focus on raising my family.
And that dream lifestyle was one I couldn’t even fathom during my undergraduate studies: I spent seven years completing the Harvard Medical School-MIT Division of Health Sciences MD program while also completing my MIT Course 6 PhD, and then four years of emergency medicine residency at Massachusetts General Hospital/Brigham and Women’s Hospital combined program.
During the first 10 years of my career, I worked part-time and regularly took my three children on explorations of museums, zoos, parks and more in the area, which struck a wonderful balance. While I initially thought that I would continue working part-time forever, I eventually felt that I needed to work full-time to not only have more time to work, but also to have more impact in what I do professionally.
As my kids got older (18, 15, and 12), their needs have also changed, allowing me to return to work full-time. Today I serve as a health consultant for academic medical centers looking to innovate with cloud technologies.
Who has been an ally or mentor to you during your career? What made that person stand out and how specifically did they help you reach the next level of professional development?
The two people who stand out are Zak Kohane and Cindy Crump. Zak, also an MD with a PhD in computer science, advised my dissertation and has been a mentor and friend for over 25 years. When I wanted to focus on starting a family while occasionally working in the emergency room, Zak supported me, but convinced me to keep up with writing and publishing. Over the years he has continued to provide support, always willing to listen to my concerns and make suggestions.
Cindy contacted me when I had just finished my internship and said that she had read my thesis on automated trend analysis in time series data (e.g. intensive care unit data) and hoped I could consult her new company. It was Cindy’s perseverance that opened my eyes to the healthcare technology industry and Cindy’s belief in me that led me to [advising] executives in C suites.
Can you give an example of a time when you experienced or witnessed gender bias? How has it affected you professionally? What impact did it have on your work?
During my third year of residency, my husband and I wanted to start our family because I was already 34 years old. When I was pregnant, I discussed with the residency program what options I might have. We couldn’t agree, and at one point the director of the residency suggested that I just quit the residency. We eventually came to an agreement, under which I would make up for any shift I would miss during my maternity leave – including finishing my stay about six weeks after the usual graduation date. The minor delay had no professional impact on me, but leaving the residency without completing it would certainly have impacted my career. After my maternity leave, some of my roommates came to see me to confide in me and discuss their own concerns.
How do you support women who come after you?
I served on the admissions committee for the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology MD program for three years and continue to mentor women through an organization called CSweetener, which strives to improve gender equality in healthcare leadership.
I have mentored MIT’s Graduate Women and volunteered with the MIT Society of Women Engineers. When I graduated from Mounds View High School, scholarships were immensely helpful in funding my MIT education. In 2005, after completing my education and training, I established the “Thank You Scholarship” to give back to my high school because I was so grateful for the financial support I received.
What is the hardest lesson you have learned in your professional life? In what unexpected ways have you grown out of it?
It’s okay to have interests and goals that are different from those that seem mainstream or expected. Deviating from a computer science college to get a medical degree wasn’t what people expected me to do, but it was what I was passionate about.
It was considered unusual to work only day shifts in the community emergency department rather than pursue a full-time academic medicine position after graduating from Harvard, but those years were incredibly meaningful to me, my family, and my community. Pursuing what I like and doing my best in those pursuits is not only an integral part of my life and my career path, but also makes ‘work’ fun.
Read next: This Flex exec helps women find their voice in large organizations