Women physicians are now using social media to connect, further their careers, find supportive communities, and expose their research, expertise, and abilities to a wider audience.
Studies show that along with the increased use of social media among young physicians who were brought up with online networks, mid- and late-career physicians are also using Twitter, Facebook, and beyond to communicate with one another. “Increasingly, physicians are using social media for professional purposes,” says Julie K. Silver, MD. Social media allows for collective voices across institutions, specialties, states, and countries to speak about any number of topics, including gender equity, adds Sasha K. Shillcutt, MD.
With women physicians using social media in a variety of ways to support and advance their careers and being vocal on the platforms about many aspects of their professional lives, Drs. Shillcutt and Silver authored a report—published in The New England Journal of Medicine—to shed light on exactly how women physicians are using these platforms.
Current Use & Benefits
“Women physicians are using social media to improve personal wellbeing and their overall work-life balance through social support, as well as professional advancement by networking, collaborating on academic projects, and seeking advice to navigate common barriers in medicine for women,” says Dr. Shillcutt, “all in a safe environment when it is most convenient for them to connect.”
Dr. Silver adds that through these digital connections, some women physicians mentor or sponsor early-career physicians, across the gender spectrum. And while sharing information is a time-honored approach to navigating the workplace, many female physicians may feel isolated or unable to share experiences in a historically male-dominated workplace. In fact, a study of women clinician researchers who reported—to the study authors—sexual harassment in the workplace found that none actually reported these incidents to any leader in their organization; The women cited “challenging institutional cultures, with workplaces dominated by men who openly engage in lewd ‘locker-room conversation’ or exclude them from all-male social events, leaving them without allies in whom to confide after suffering an indignity or a crime.” Drs. Silver and Shillcutt note that virtual communities may allow such experiences to be shared and validated, perhaps lessening social isolation and feelings of loneliness and self-blame.
The benefits of social media for women physicians stretch beyond connecting with like-minded women facing similar situations by increasing the diversity of their network across the country and even the world, institutions, and specialties, explains Dr. Shillcutt. “Women are able to find collaborators across medical societies, states, and disciplines,” she adds.
With multiple studies showing that women physicians continue to face barriers in promotion and compensation, speaking opportunities, recognition awards and more, social media may provide them with opportunities to express opinions, insights, and visions for their specialty (Table). Social media may also provide nontraditional but far-reaching means for disseminating their research, which can lead to speaking invitations or other traditional career-enhancing opportunities, explain Drs. Silver and Shillcutt. “Social media provides an excellent way to share information about the women-led research in medicine,” says Dr. Silver, “since it does not rely on mentorship or conference invitations—areas in which women tend to be disadvantaged.”
Proceed With Caution
Drs. Silver and Shillcutt warn women physicians of the potential pitfalls of social media. “Everything is public, and much can be lost in translation over social media,” says Dr. Shillcutt. “Evidence also suggests women are more harshly judged for speaking bluntly or can be labeled as whining specifically when speaking on gender-related issues and thus are more at risk of offending people inadvertently. And of course, physicians in general should take standard precautions for violating any patient confidentiality when posting online and maintain professional behavior.”
Women physicians should be aware of “predators” on social media, warns Dr. Silver. Anecdotally, online bullying, cyber stalking, and catfishing (using a false online identify to lure someone into a relationship) may target women physicians specifically. “Women physicians should take the same precautions anyone should using social media,” she adds. “They should also aim to be extremely professional and supportive of colleagues.”
Among those colleagues are male physicians, who Dr. Shillcutt hopes to see more engaged on social media in topics that can influence the advancement of women physicians. “Approximately 80% of hospital and academic leaders are men,” she explains, “and we need them to move the needle forward in a positive direction. I hope our paper is a nidus of discussions among departments and institutions to bring advancement to all physicians and ultimately patients by increasing diversity at the top.”
Shillcutt S, Silver J. Social Media and Advancement of Women Physicians. N Engl J Med. 2018;378:2342-2345. Available at www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMms1801980.