‘In Dialogue’ Episode 13: Aiming for Equity in Leadership
In episode 13 of “In Dialogue,” paediatric emergency physician and CPSO Council member Dr. Sarah Reid speaks to Dr. Minna Woo, a clinician scientist and the first woman director of U of T’s Banting and Best Diabetes Centre, about needing more equity in leadership positions, the importance of mentoring young women, and the value of allyship in raising diverse voices and addressing bias.
Dr. Woo is an endocrinologist, a professor in the division of Endocrinology and Metabolism in University of Toronto’s Department of Medicine at Temerty Medicine, and holds appointments in the departments of immunology, pharmacology and toxicology, and the Institute of Medical Science. She just completed a 10-year term as division director of Endocrinology and Metabolism at the University Health Network, Mount Sinai Hospital and the metabolism group lead at Toronto General Hospital Research Institute. She now embarks on a five-year term at the Banting and Best Diabetes Centre.
Launching just before International Women’s Day 2023, it’s important to note that according to Statistics Canada, 34 percent of Canadians with a STEM degree are women, but they make up only 23 percent of Canadians working in science and technology. Dr. Woo is in an even greater minority having achieved several leadership positions throughout her career, but her story should not be the exception — embrace equity so one day it’s the norm.
Related eDialogue Articles
- Being a True Ally
- Bias and Female Surgeons
- Implicit Bias in Health Care
- ‘In Dialogue’ Episode 7: Dr. Ritika Goel
- ‘In Dialogue’ Episode 1: Dr. Mamta Gautam
- International Women’s Day
- Statistics Canada: Persistence and representation of women in STEM programs
CPSO presents “In Dialogue,” a podcast series where we speak to health system experts on issues related to medical regulation, the delivery of quality care, physician wellness, and initiatives to address bias and discrimination in health care.
Dr. Sarah Reid (SR):
Hello and thanks for joining us, “In Dialogue.” My name is Dr. Sarah Reid. I’m a paediatric emergency physician working in Ottawa and a member of CPSO’s Council. Today, we’re delighted to be joined by Clinician Scientist Dr. Minna Woo.
Dr. Woo is an endocrinologist, a professor in the division of Endocrinology and Metabolism in U of T’s Department of Medicine at Temerty Medicine, and holds appointments in the departments of immunology, pharmacology and toxicology, and the Institute of Medical Science. She just completed a 10-year term as division director of Endocrinology and Metabolism at the University Health Network, Mount Sinai Hospital, the metabolism group lead at Toronto General Hospital Research Institute, and, most recently, was appointed as the director of U of T’s Banting and Best Diabetes Centre for a five-year term.
Welcome and thank you for taking the time to chat with us, Minna.
Dr. Minna Woo (MW):
Thanks, Sarah. It’s a great honor. And thanks for inviting me. Thanks for the kind introduction as well.
SR: Well, when I reflect on your achievements, I think about how we have many women who are clinician scientists in Canada, but we still haven’t achieved gender equity in leadership positions. So, I wondered if you would start by just talking to us about your journey to leadership and how this has all transpired?
MW: Thanks for that great question. I was one of these people that never really aspired or wanted to become a leader. In fact, that type of title or position intimidated me. And, I guess, when I was growing up, during my entire training, I’ve always had men dominant — I mean, as you know, right? So, there weren’t that many women leaders to even aspire to or to seek mentorship from. And plus, what I was seeking was to become a clinician scientist, and that alone was an extremely competitive and challenging goal. And so, I was very, very busy keeping that afloat. And to do that well. And, I mean, it was challenging, but it was thoroughly enjoyable. And I really flourished in taking that challenge on. And through that experience, I got to meet a lot of people; so many different groups of people that I would have not otherwise met had I not had this career as a clinician scientist.
As a clinician scientist, you almost lead a double life. So, you’re 100 percent clinician, obviously, but then you also have to be 100 percent scientist, and these are very, very different groups of people. And, as you know, there are many, many scientists that are not clinicians and vice versa. But when you do one or the other, which are in some respect, very, very separate, you do actually have to be fully that phenotype. Through that, I had a chance to meet many, many people. And I guess through that I gained a lot of, I don’t know, confidence, and through that I saw a lot of really generous, nurturing leaders — and they weren’t necessarily women, but they were very embracing of my participation and I really felt their respect and I really felt that they valued my contribution in science. So, it was really that that propelled my advancement and career. It wasn’t that I had this goal of becoming a leader per se, but I really enjoyed contributing to the scientific community, to the clinical community. And just through my actions, I enjoyed mentoring, especially young women. It was through that.
And then one day, this is maybe 10 years into my independent career as staff endocrinologist and, actually, at that time, I was at St. Mike’s — so that’s where I got hired as a clinician scientist. And I’ve always had great mentors. The endocrine community is quite small and I’ve always had incredibly smart, powerful leaders in our division, who I’ve [sought] a lot of mentorship from. And they’ve always took me under their wing and, actually, most of them were men. But they valued my accomplishments and they were always encouraging. And then one day, they just gave me a phone call and I still remember this, I was sitting with my kids at the dental office, and I got this phone call from Bernie Zinman, and he said, “Would you consider becoming a division director at the University Health Network?” and I almost fell over backwards because it wasn’t even in my radar. I was very happy where I was in my research career. I might have just gotten promoted. And so I was actually having a lot of fun doing what I always dreamt of, which was doing science and being an endocrinologist. So, I was thoroughly enjoying my career and my accomplishments. But becoming a division director or anything like that with a leadership title wasn’t something that was in my radar at the time.
SR: I think there’s a couple of really interesting threads there. So, at the beginning, you were talking about how you didn’t see anybody — necessarily women in leadership roles — there were a lot of men. And so that goes to this representation piece where maybe you didn’t see yourself in those roles. But now you’re somebody who others will see. So, I just wonder if you could reflect on that. And then I’m going to pick up on something else as well.
MW: So, I think that’s really, really powerful, right? And to be honest, when I was considering this leadership position, 10 years ago, those are not things that I was even thinking about. I was just overwhelmed by the time commitment. I had full family. And so, it was mostly, “Can I do this?” I wasn’t even thinking about, “Oh, I’m the first woman” — even though I was — that wasn’t really one of my primary factors that was in the decision-making process. But it was more that I already had a very, very full plate and I didn’t want to take on something that I wasn’t going to do well in. And because this is not something that had any objective measures and I hadn’t done it, it took me a long, long time to finally decide.
But 10 years later, now that I’ve done this, I have become increasingly appreciative of the fact that I took on this role and how important it is for others. So, when I took on this job, I was very self-centric in terms of the decision-making process that took me to this job. But through the last 10 years, if I were to reflect, I would definitely say how important it was for me, and I have no doubt that I’ve really touched the lives of many, many women, in particular in my division, trainees. I mean, as you know, endocrine is a very female-dominant subspecialty. So, it’s a little bit embarrassing that it’s in 2013 that we had the first woman division director at the Toronto General Hospital. So, we’re still a little bit behind, for sure. And in my tenure, I’ve had the fortune of a lot of women leaders that surrounded me. So, we had two past chairs in the Department of Medicine that were women and they were very vocal. And none of this just happened. I think you have to be very, very deliberate.
SR: For sure. It’s that critical mass that we need around the table. And so, to have that and to have the leadership structures actually purposefully looking at diversity to have that appropriate representation. I’m in paediatrics, so I know what you mean by a female-dominated specialty, for sure.
MW: Exactly. So, I mean, just a simple thing, like awareness. So, my past chairs, they would have — like Gillian Hawker, for example, she has held these annual women’s day summits. In the beginning, I felt very lukewarm because I’m so busy and I didn’t want to — a whole day to dedicate to something like this, I felt was a lot. But then I would attend and I’d be so inspired. So, even though it might be obvious to really dedicate a whole day and to have these inspiring women leaders and speakers, not just medicine, but all sectors, we could learn from them. And I think it’s really, really important that it’s vocalized that there’s acknowledgement and inequities that we need to recognize.
SR: For sure. And you also mentioned you’ve really been thoughtful around mentorship for younger women who are coming through and, perhaps, somebody tapped you on the shoulder and saw you as a leader before you saw it yourself and the importance of that mentorship. And I was reflecting when you were talking about the allyship that you experienced as well, through these many male leaders who actually saw you, nurtured your career and helped you on this trajectory. Can you comment on that?
MW: For sure. So, I think when we’re in the midst of developing our career, we don’t have a lot — we’re too busy, right? So, we don’t really have a lot of chance to reflect on ourselves. But it’s more often I think that others see your potential before you yourself see your potential. So, I’ve had a lot of moments where others saw me as a future clinician scientist before I did and I have many, many examples like that. But when they vocalize how they feel about their confidence about you, and things like that, that’s very, very meaningful, actually. And that really gives you confidence to really further proceed with your attempts.
So, I do the same thing. When I sit down with younger people that are contemplating what to do, I really tell them that they’re already very, very accomplished. Because many of us in medicine, we don’t have time to do that often — we’re too busy doing what we do. And we often don’t take the time to remind them that they’ve already gotten into medical school, they’ve already gotten into these competitive programs. They’re really the cream of the crop already. And sometimes you need to be told that. And then for them to be considering these very, very higher-level education, I mean, you don’t often get there unless you’re very, very accomplished. So, I really go out of my way to tell them that because I benefited from that a lot and so, I want to do the same and they really appreciate it.
SR: I’m sure they do. And it’s also trying to narrow that confidence gap, right? You have the skill set, so what is it that allows you to take that next leap or that next step into something that’s maybe perhaps a little bit unknown, like a leadership position?
MW: Right. Exactly.
SR: So, as you step into this new role at the Banting and Best Diabetes Centre, what are your goals as you move forward?
MW: That’s a really good question. I’ve just taken on this role — it started in the summer of last year — so, I’m still trying to pave my way. We still haven’t even gotten around to making a strategic plan. So, there’s a lot of big plans that I’ve been thinking about that hasn’t actually materialized as of yet. But it’s a bigger challenge than, let’s say, the division director that I was heading over the last 10 years where there were defined members and I had defined roles. And it was, in hindsight, very much defined for me and the position was very well laid out. My new position as the BDC director is similar in that it does have an amazing legacy. And the past directors that preceded me are people that that I’ve looked up to, that have had incredible accomplishments and have grown the Banting and Best Diabetes Centre to where it is today.
And, of course, it’s on the helms of the discovery of insulin in Toronto and we just finished celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the discovery of insulin. So, it does carry a huge burden for me, actually, but at the same time, it’s incredibly exciting. And the depth and breadth of this role, compared to my division director role, is incomparable. It’s sort of, in some ways, limitless. And I’m very enthusiastic to take this to another level, to embrace these incredible advancements in science that’s happening in the last decades. So, we do need a little bit of renewal, while keeping the legacy going. So, it’s a very, very challenging prospect, but it’s also very, very exciting. And I think this is a platform where I can further embrace — to incorporate equity, diversity and to make sure that this reaches more people.
SR: That’s amazing. So, you know, you go from division lead where you perhaps a lot of the time are dealing with day-to-day issues around the functioning of your division and the clinical service, and you move into this other role, which is now really forging a future for this already well-established centre, internationally renowned, but what does the future look like? And you put your stamp on that and developing your strategic plan around what’s the vision for this moving into the future? You’re exercising a lot of different muscles there. But, of course, you have this foundational experience as a leader already.
MW: Yeah, it is very exciting. And, I mean, it depends. And then it could also be very, very daunting as well.
SR: How do you walk that line between exciting and daunting? I mean, it’s sort of maybe at some point a little bit uncomfortable. But yeah, sort of stretching? Or how does that feel?
MW: So, I’ve been now a clinician scientist for over 20 years and my science has really grown and changed. And I would have never imagined 20 years ago, what I’m doing today in terms of the field that I’m in, but everything is changing. And I think that’s what’s so beautiful about medicine, right? That medicine incorporates so much — almost everything, right? There’s data science, there’s psychology, I mean, it’s just incredible. The Banting and Best is a whole enterprise. But in some ways, it does follow the similar fundamentals of exploring and going beyond to new challenges.
And the other thing is that I’m learning over the years, particularly through now interacting with women leaders that I now have more luxury of than before. And now, a lot of emerging woman leaders are now younger than me, which is amazing, right? I just love that. And I just find it very refreshing that they really embrace challenges and they look for ways to improve themselves. And there’s always courses and there’s other ways that you could do to learn. So, I think that’s really important that there are solutions, and there are teams and other people that that you could learn from also.
SR: Yeah. So, just using those resources that you have. I think it’s important for us to reflect on the fact that for some, there’s still some structural things that are in place that really lead women away from leadership positions. That there are barriers that many women still face. And I wonder if you could reflect on your experience in that respect. I mean, your journey has been incredible. But I’m sure there were times when you thought, “My gosh, what’s the next step here?” And I’m sure it hasn’t been all sunshine and roses, but how do you overcome those barriers? And how do you move forward?
MW: Right. So, that’s an incredibly important point and I think it has to start with awareness. I must say, and maybe this was a blessing, sometimes when you’re so focused on what you want to do — and let’s say when you’re in medical school, it’s getting marks and getting courses and getting rotations and getting into programs — so, when you’re so focused, sometimes you don’t have the luxury of time, or maybe it’s my personality, I don’t know, but I didn’t really look around a lot. Whereas, as you get older and as you have these leadership positions, you have plenty more opportunities to look around. And you obviously meet more people as well who are wise and they themselves are great leaders, and you learn from them as well. So, I think it’s really important that you need to call out if there are things that are wrong. And when you’re — not younger, it’s not nothing to do with age — but if you’re, let’s say, in a more junior position, you may be more vulnerable and your career may be more on the line, and so you may be less inclined to speak up, even when there are obvious injustices or whatever. But, I think especially as a leader, it almost is your duty now to call out when things are wrong.
I think that’s a huge responsibility as leaders to really make sure that there is fairness and there is transparency, and I think everybody’s trying because I don’t recall there being this much role-active processes that are in place for leaders, and for everybody else, to really ensure that there are no biases. So, I think we are all trying, some people might call this lip service or whatever — and, for some, it may be, but we got to start somewhere. I really do see that we are all trying, that most of us do have good intentions to move forward in a good direction. But you know, there are always challenges. And change takes time. But I’m inspired because already I’ve seen so much change. I would have never imagined that there will be so many women leaders and young women leaders, so I’m incredibly inspired by that.
SR: Yeah, I mean, exactly. I think our hope is that in the years to come, that becomes less extraordinary and so it’s just embedded, it’s just the way it is. There’s equity, we see all different kinds of faces around the table, and it reflects our patient population that reflects our communities, right? And that it becomes a little bit less notable. I think that’s what we’d like to get to.
MW: For sure. But you know what? I think it’s really happening. I mean, I’m very optimistic. So, my son who’s now 23, when he was JK or something 20-plus years ago, and I was arranging playdates and I found out that the friend’s mom was also a doctor just through arranging this playdate, and my son says something that made my day and I repeat the story all the time — and then I found out that the mom’s husband was also a doctor. But my son went, “Oh, I didn’t know men could be doctors!” Because he knew both the moms were doctors. So, I was floored by that comment, but I thought that was so refreshing.
SR: Representation matters, for sure.
MW: That’s right. And, you know, my husband’s an engineer, so he thought that only moms were doctors. [Laughter]
SR: Oh my gosh, I love that so much. If you had to talk to your younger self, what advice would you give her as she’s embarking on her STEM career? What would be the things that you would tell her now?
MW: Oh, you know, I always parade around saying that I don’t look back. And even when I talk to people that I mentor, I always say that whatever decision you make — because there’s always decisions and choices — and I always say whatever decision you make is the right one. This might sound a little off-putting, I don’t know, but I don’t look back very often. I’m incredibly happy and feel incredibly fortunate to have made all the choices. I mean a lot of the choices, there’s lot of serendipity and other factors. But I never take any of my decisions lightly. I’m always of this mindset that I can never have too much advice. So, I seek a lot of advice. I tap on a lot of people. But then once I make these choices, I rarely look back. So, I don’t know if I would change anything. I would just do whatever I’ve done, because I’m thoroughly grateful and enjoying what I do.
SR: That’s incredible. Maybe I’ll ask it this way. I know you’ve already talked about how you mentor many young women in medicine, what’s your best advice to them? I think your enthusiasm for the career is infectious. You’ve obviously really embraced the opportunities that came your way and despite maybe feeling a bit uncomfortable, you still did it and so that, I think, is food for thought for all of us to try and see yourself — others see you there, so why not you? But what other — if you have some standard advice that you give these young women that you work with, in terms of where they’re going and how they see themselves?
MW: Yeah, so first of all, I think they do need to remind themselves once in a while that they’re already so accomplished and often they don’t see that. So, I think that’s really important. And it is, I think, the responsibility of leaders to see that in them and to tell them and to share with them.
SR: I think as a leader, you really acknowledge that there’s things you can do when you have a little bit more of a voice at the table, right? You can put into place these structures that embed equity. And that might be a good place for us to end.
This podcast will launch on International Women’s Day and the theme this year is “Embrace Equity.” And so, it sounds like you’re looking forward in terms of your new role at the Banting and Best Centre, that that is going to be part of your mandate. And how does this all look? And how do we raise all the boats? Right?
MW: Exactly. So, I think particularly as a leader, you do need to be aware, and this is where you do have, I guess, the power to make sure that certain things are in place and processes are in place so that we reach these goals.
SR: For sure. And it just can’t be tokenism, like, “Okay, we did our EDI thing, check the box.” It actually has to be… So lastly, is there anything else that you’d like to share about what it’s like to be a woman in medicine, your last thoughts for those young girls who are thinking about STEM and wondering if they have a place in these fields?
MW: Oh, absolutely. I think women physicians and women scientists, it’s such an incredibly gratifying job and life. And there’s definitely many, many of us, and I’m sure, just through our examples and our joy, we will continue to inspire lots of young girls. But, on the other hand, it has to be deliberate. I’ll just give you an example of engineering where the new dean, she would go to high schools to really promote because there’s a huge inequity there in engineering, and there’s absolutely no reason for that. So, I think medicine, even in my class, it was I think 50/50. But, of course, that’s not the same in the leadership roles, right? That we touched on. You do, particularly in your role as a leader, have to be deliberate. But I think things are moving forward and it’s very inspiring, I think, for young people to continue to aspire as they see more and more examples of great women leaders.
SR: Well, that is a wonderful note to end on. Thanks so much for speaking with us today and sharing your journey, Minna. We wish you all the best in the future.
MW: Thank you so much.
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