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Sponsoring paramedic women to become leaders

Becky Donelon, Bre Hutchinson

Advancement and growth in leadership roles in paramedicine require significant planning and support by those already in leadership, those aspiring to the roles, alongside specific leadership education, experience, and ability. Currently, achieving a leadership position, whether early-career or on the executive team, is thought to be available for all paramedics and based simply on merit. Emerging evidence challenges this myth of meritocracy in that it is now known that male leaders who believe they are objective are more likely to hire another male when both male and female are equally qualified and are more likely to support promotions of other males instead of women (1). This biased approach presents a dilemma for Paramedic Services Organizations(PSOs)looking to achieve diversity, equity and inclusivity and leadership capacity which underpins organizational resilience and agility (2).

Recent findings indicate that there is a significant issue in most recruitment processes such as lazy male-default thinking, gender bias, cognitive bias, confirmation and culture bias, and brilliance bias (1) and that male leaders find it difficult to identify with potential leaders who are female (3). When working to advance into more senior leadership roles women in paramedicine are often seen by their gender first and not their leadership abilities, (4, 5, 6). It is noted that cognitive bias occurs when women are not judged for their career potential or abilities because they are viewed as mothers and wives instead of colleagues or up-and-coming leaders (7, 8). This gendered social context and bias are difficult for paramedic women leaders to overcome without awareness and help from those already in positions of leadership. Good leadership qualities are not gendered but aligned along with technical expertise, and emotional and social intelligence boundaries where the leader is self-aware and able to develop the team’s capabilities (9). Where good leadership and organizational outcomes are proven to come from innovative, diverse, and representational thinking and action, it is less likely when only homogenous leadership groups consisting of only white men are interpreting the problem and making policy decisions (1).

Sponsorship is one way to disrupt the myth of meritocracy and aspects of bias women experience in advancing their careers. It is much more focused and intentional than mentorship and dependent on a relationship with established leaders in positions of power. Without sponsorship, women do not achieve career advancement (10). This though is dependent on the sponsors’ positional power and ability to engage with the female paramedic which they are advocating for with detailed, ongoing, and actionable advice that helps the paramedic stretch into the role. With few women in paramedicine holding leadership portfolios and positional power, this may place a significant burden on a few women, and on some men willing to become sponsors. And further puts added pressure on the sponsored paramedic to meet higher expectations than is typical for others. 

Sponsorship

Currently, there is not enough known about sponsorship roles and opportunities for aspiring women leaders across paramedicine (11, 12,13). Emerging evidence about the value of sponsorship (14) indicates that the specificity of the advice, coaching and knowledge sharing directly concerning the role or opportunity is what makes the difference for success for all leaders, including women. Advancement into leadership, both informal and formal positions can be meaningfully enhanced through sponsorship. Where mentors can provide general career advice and support for the mentee, it is a sponsor who surpasses this generalized approach with action that propels the female (or male) paramedic into advanced roles and positions. 

The important distinction of sponsorship is the intent for advancement and the role positional power plays in achieving it. The actions of a sponsor are to advocate for the individual to enable the professional development of capabilities and related career movement. Most importantly the sponsor takes a public stance in endorsing the individual for opportunities and new responsibilities. In doing so the sponsor stakes their reputation and credibility on the line to provide direct support. 

Mentorship 

A mentor is “someone who talks with you about your career, goals, plans, and aspirations” (15). They take the time to relate their own experiences, relationships, and leadership style to help you navigate your career path. Mentors can be both formal and informal and can include people within your peer group and those who are completely outside of your chosen field. They may be a colleague from paramedic school that you call to talk through challenging calls and experiences. There may be a formal mentorship program with PSO where you are paired with a leader from a completely different program to talk through your career goals. 

The role of a mentor is like that of a trusted advisor – they are someone that you can share your challenges with, to help you identify possible solutions based on their own experiences and learnings. It is important to be deliberate in choosing a mentor: someone who exhibits qualities and skills that you admire versus a mentor who has a formal leadership position is one way of honing into what type of capacities you are looking to build. The opportunity is to reach out to that person and tell them that you appreciated and or respected how they presented or how they reacted to something and ask if they have time for a call or a coffee to discuss. This may seem awkward at first but much of the time you will get a positive response and an opening to developing an informal mentorship with someone you respect. 

Mentorship for paramedic women, non-binary, LGBTQ2S+, and BIPOC can be challenging, especially if you are trying to find a mentor in a paramedic leadership position that reflects you and your own experiences. You may need to branch out of paramedicine or your physical location to find a mentor that you feel comfortable approaching. With the increasing availability of free online seminars, presentations and symposiums, there is also an increased ability to virtually connect with potential mentors that demonstrate shared values and experiences for you to tap into. Groups such as Emerging Health Leaders also provide mentorship opportunities to professionals looking to develop leadership capabilities and work to connect participants with a mentor of their choosing through their formal mentorship program(16). 

Also, consider how you may be able to support others through mentorship. Regardless of your experience or position, you will have a perspective and insights that can help someone else in their challenges. A key component of leadership is how you build capacity in others, and mentoring is an ideal opportunity to grow this capability. Especially in environments where there is a dearth of diversity and the principles of inclusion are not actively employed, offering your support and guidance to others can make a dramatic difference in creating safe spaces to nurture leadership competencies. Developing collaborative networks through mentoring relationships can further help to improve equitable progress in your organization and paramedicine as a profession, as sharing experiences, successes and challenges improve outcomes for us all.  

Coaching

Coaching is another form of support for leadership development and is usually a formal relationship with a career development professional hired by you or your organization to help build specific leadership capabilities. Although there is some debate on the definition of coaching, it is generally a contracted and formal relationship that focuses on a tangible, short-term goal such as improving performance in a specific area, and uses prompting, toolkits, and strategic questions to help build capacity. 

Finding a good coach can be a difficult task as there are no formal requirements of education or skillsets for someone to call themselves a coach. However, there are organizations such as the International Coaching Federation (17) or LEADS Canada (18) that do require members to complete specific courses and to maintain competencies through professional development to be certified. Before you start looking for a coach, it is helpful if you can identify what key components or activities you are looking to improve. Completing a 360-degree assessment (19) or other self-reflective exercises can be helpful if you are not entirely sure where to begin. These exercises also help to prepare you for the general coaching experience as you will be asked to repeatedly reflect on why you do things the way you do, the impacts of your actions on others and how you can achieve better results. 

Coaching helps us to examine our intrinsic motivations, beliefs, and attitudes, but it can also resemble therapy, especially when you are experiencing interpersonal issues at work and home that may be impacting your performance in both.  An excellent coach can deftly navigate the line between therapy and coaching, helping you to better understand your motivations and behaviours and laying out potential paths for you to take to enhance your skills. An inexperienced coach may have difficulty steering away from this danger zone and may instead delve into areas that are best supported by an appropriate mental health professional. For these reasons, it is important to do your research into potential coaches (including referrals from those you respect) and it may also be prudent as a paramedic to look for a coach that has experience and expertise in health leadership coaching. Most importantly, look for a coach that demonstrates the skills that you are looking to develop and don’t be afraid to ask for a free consult to get to know a potential coach before hiring them. If your organization is choosing a coach for you, ask if you have options of who may be your coach and if possible, ask to see the potential coach’s qualifications and experience as a coach. This is such an important relationship in your career development and you need to find someone that you feel you can trust to make the most of it. 

Conclusion

The boundaries between coaching, mentorship and sponsorship are an important distinction as these roles and their functions are significantly different. Despite the numerous challenges women face in career progression, there are opportunities for improving leadership development through active participation as sponsors for others. There are women (and men) in paramedicine leadership roles who commit to sponsoring others, enacting professional values by helping others to become aware of the difference and importance of mentoring and sponsoring (11). Where these sponsors are deliberately taking risks (14) on behalf of aspiring women leaders to advocate and find opportunities for growth and advancement in paramedic leadership, education, and research roles. 

Women constitute almost half of the PSOs workforce (20, 21) yet are still not visible in formal paramedic leadership and executive roles. Suggesting that while the pipeline may have reached gender parity with women leading in informal roles at the front line, a gap exists at the next entry-level of management. This gap between the pipeline and the next step on the ladder is considered the broken rung (19) for women. Without a professional sponsorship relationship in place, this is the level where women start to be missed. When progression and promotion are wholly dependent on the endorsement of a manager (20), understanding how bias, gender stereotyping and learning to value diversity can be mitigated with positive sponsorship development. The more senior and executive the leadership roles, the more important sponsorship becomes for succession planning and achieving organizational performance.

References 

1. Perez, CC. Invisible women, data bias in a world designed for men. New York: Abrams books; 2021

2. Dnika TJ, Shaffer E, Thorpe-Moscon J. Getting real about inclusive leadership: why change starts with you. Catalyst: 2019 Cited March 02, 2022, Available https://www.catalyst.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Getting-Real-About-Inclusive-Leadership-Report-2020update.pdf

3Claes JT. Women, men and management styles. In MF Loutfi (Ed.), Women, gender and work: What is equality and how do we get there? (pp. 385-404).Geneva: International Labour Office; 2019

4. Kanter, R.M., Men and women of the corporation. New York: Basic Books; 1977

5. Sheridan A, McKenzie FH, Still L. Making visible the ‘space of betweenness’: Understanding women’s limited access to leadership in regional Australia. Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, 2019 18,732-748. DOI: 10.1080/0966369X.2011.617909

6. Yoder JD. Making leadership work more effectively for women. Journal of Social Issues, 2001, 57, p815-828.

7. Goldbeck A. A conversation about implicit bias. Statistical Journal of the IAOS, 2016, 32, p739-755.

8. Kaiser RB, Wallace WT. Gender bias and substantive differences in ratings of leadership behaviour: Toward a new narrative. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 2016. 68, p72-98.

9. McKee A, Boyatzis R, Johnston F. Becoming a resonant leader: Develop your emotional intelligence, renew your relationships, sustain your effectiveness. NY: Perseus Books Group; 2008

10. Ayyala MS, Skarupski K, Bodurtha JN, González-Fernández M, Ishii LE, Fivush B et al. Mentorship Is Not Enough: Exploring sponsorship and its role in career advancement in academic medicine. Academic Medicine. 2019 Jan 1;94(1), https://doi.org/10.1097/ACM.0000000000002398

11. Lanos C, Mason P, Batt A. Go Sponsor…Us: Going beyond mentoring for women in paramedicine. Canadian Paramedicine, 2019 April/May

12. Maison P. Identifying the barriers to female leadership in Paramedicine. Irish Journal of Paramedicine, 2017 Vol 2:1, June 

13. Letain S. Mentoring and Sponsorship in Rural EMS. Canadian Paramedicine, 2020

14. Abbott I. Sponsoring women: What men need to know, 2014,  https://idaabbott.com/

15. Gotian DR. Why you need a role model, mentor, coach and sponsor. Forbes. 2020. Cited Feb 6, 2022, Available https://www.forbes.com/sites/ruthgotian/2020/08/04/why-you-need-a-role-model-mentor-coach-and-sponsor/?sh=7a63e27a7c48

16. Developing emerging health leaders across Canada, Cited Feb 28, 2022, Available https://emerginghealthleaders.ca/

17. Find a coach. Cited Feb 20, 2022, Available https://coachingfederation.org/

18. LEADS 360 Assessment. Cited Feb 22, 2022, Available https://www.leadscanada.net/site/leadership/tools/leads-360-assessment?nav=sidebar

19. Women in the Workforce. Mckinsey Report 2021. Cited Mar 30, 2022, Available https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/women-in-the-workplace#

20. Victoria Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission. Workplace Equality in Ambulance Victoria, Vol2, Cited Mar 18, 2022, Available https://www.humanrights.vic.gov.au/legal-and-policy/research-reviews-and-investigations/ambulance-victoria-review/final-report/

21. Canadian Institute for Health Information. Canada’s Health Care Providers, 2016-2020 data tables. Cited Mar15, 2022, Available https://www.cihi.ca/en/health-workforce

Keep Reading from this Edition

Dr. Becky Donelon, EdD, MADL, ACP

Dr. Becky Donelon, EdD, MADL, ACP

Dr. Becky Donelon is a paramedic educator and researcher located in Alberta, Canada. Becky has a Doctor of Education, Specialization in Educational Leadership, University of Calgary, a Masters of Distributed Learning and Leadership from Royal Roads University, and completed a combined certificate in Adult Learning, Organizational Behavior and Social Justice from University of Calgary alongside the Advanced Care Paramedic diploma from SAIT Polytechnic. Research focus includes paramedic practice education pedagogy, health equity, paramedic ways of knowing and relational learning spaces. She continues to teach paramedics and works to improve paramedic education through participation in local and national projects and initiatives. Becky can be reached at beckyjdonelon@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter @becjo2016

Bre Hutchinson

Bre Hutchinson

Bre Hutchinson is currently the Executive Director of Provincial Operations with the Alberta Emergency Management Agency. Prior to this she was the Provincial Director of Emergency Health Services for the Alberta Government, and practised as a paramedic for over a decade. Bre has completed both a Juris Doctor and a Bachelor’s of Commerce. 

Women in Paramedicine

Women in Paramedicine

Women in Paramedicine is compromised of dozens of women in the paramedical field across Canada. Since 2019, they have been sharing their research, point of view, thoughts, and strength to Canadian Paramedicine through their voice and words.

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