August 7, 2023/Digestive/News

Helping Women Become Leaders in Gastroenterology

Cleveland Clinic’s Chair of Gastroenterology shares her perspective on what it takes to become a leader in a specialty where women are underrepresented

Michelle Kang Kim, MD, PhD

Although the number of women in healthcare has continued to rise over the past few decades, procedural-predominant specialties still lag in terms of representation. This trend is evident in gastroenterology with less than 20% of practicing gastroenterologists in the U.S. being female.1 As such, representation in positions of leadership in the specialty remains rare. When Michelle Kang Kim, MD, PhD, was named Chair, Gastroenterology, Hepatology & Nutrition at Cleveland Clinic last year, she became one of just a handful of gastrointestinal chairs in the county.


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Speaking recently at this year’s Digestive Disease Week Conference, Dr. Kim shared insights into the process of becoming a leader and what it takes to break the glass ceiling. “I was really pleased to give this presentation because I think it’s an important topic that we don’t talk often enough about,” says Dr. Kim. “Quite frankly, these types of conversations don’t usually happen in this kind of public forum — rather it’s more often in one-on-one conversations or small groups. So, it was refreshing to see that this was a topic of interest and importance to the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, the society that hosted this seminar. Essentially, the purpose of the seminar was to talk about some of the lessons learned about becoming a chair.”

Skills that make a good leader

The presentation focused on some of the skills Dr. Kim has found to be necessary for success. “Preparing for the seminar ended up becoming a time for me to be able to reflect on the past six to 12 months and some of the lessons and takeaways I learned during a very steep learning curve.”

While she notes that as a department chair it’s necessary to be able to be able to develop research programs, clinical programs and the business side of the department, much of the seminar focused on the interpersonal skills that she believes help make a good leader. Some of these include communicating effectively, time management, building relationships, preventing burnout and being able to have difficult conversations.

“I think the skills that I discussed in the seminar were ones I found that I need and rely on to perform this job,” says Dr. Kim. “These skills are a direct reflection on what I heard after speaking with a hundred faculty in the department, and these were the ones that I found myself leaning on over and over again.”


Although the audience was mostly women, Dr. Kim believes much of the lessons learned and some of the skills discussed could be very relevant for anyone looking at a leadership position, men and women alike. She says that while these things aren’t often discussed in the workday, some of the most difficult conversations she’s had with people have been not even necessarily related to clinical issues, but much more related to how the clinical professional career overlaps with the personal one.

Two key discussion points

One of the topics the presentation focused on extensively was self-reflection. Dr. Kim believes that it’s important for everyone to do some reflection every few months or at least once a year to understand their motivations and goals as well as whether how they’re doing things now is successful. It’s also important to be honest about whether someone wants something for the right reasons, i.e., determining whether it’s the work or the title that is most wanted. “Even after you become a leader, it’s important to still take time to self-reflect. For example, maybe the leadership style you found to be successful in the past doesn’t work in a different setting, so you need to be able to recognize what’s successful and what isn’t,” says Dr. Kim. “It’s important to be adaptable, and I think the best way to realize this is through self-reflection.”

Beyond self-reflection, Dr. Kim is a big proponent of mentorship. “I believe very strongly in female empowerment and mentorship and sponsorship and, I have no doubt that without some very impactful female mentors, I would not be where I am today,” she says. “But I will say that I think it is incredibly important for men and women to have both female and male mentors, sponsors, and advisors. If you limit yourself to female mentors, you will miss out on additional guidance and perspectives from men who can provide guidance and advice. There may be some things that a female mentor is more able to coach you on, for instance, things around pregnancy, maternity leave, things like that, being a parent.”

She continues, “I hate to see people limit themselves by not taking full advantage of their network. I think that oftentimes you need to have a village of mentors and sponsors. But what has been helpful for me is that with each relationship, it became very clear to me where there were areas of commonality and where somebody could be very helpful.”


A broader look at the gastroenterology landscape

When Dr. Kim first entered the specialty, she admits that it didn’t even occur to her that there weren’t that many women in gastroenterology. Because she was surrounded by other women early in her career, she notes that it didn’t really become aware of the gender discrepancy until she became a more mid-level to senior faculty. “I began to notice that I was often the other only female gastroenterologist in the room. Then, especially as I got into leadership, it became extremely obvious because I was always the only woman in the room.”

Dr. Kim notes that as one of the few women in gastroenterology with a position of leadership, she carries a responsibility to be a voice for perspectives that have not been heard before. “I think I do this on a near-daily basis, even in my current role as chair. I take that responsibility very seriously. I have to consider whether there are perspectives that haven’t been voiced before and if mine is the first time people are hearing them. When something like that happens, I try to bring it up in a way that is persuasive and builds and broadens our community.”

She continues, “From my point of view, diversity is sort of where I start and end. It is part of every single conversation that I have. And if someone ever brings up an issue where maybe there’s not equity or inclusion, then I take that to heart, and I very much try to ensure that we are doing what we need to do.”

Looking ahead, Dr. Kim is optimistic about the trajectory for women in leadership in gastroenterology. She notes that while the number of women in the field still lags, the fact that women are obtaining leadership positions can do a lot to change these numbers. “Being able to point to someone who looks like you and who has a similar perspective and similar experiences sends a message to women in the field that this is something they can achieve,” explains Dr. Kim. “It can help reinforce to them that if they want it, it’s possible to be in a leadership position and be successful and have a family and make a difference. I’m a great optimist. I also think that being a female leader, I’m in a position to be able to see talent and recognize the potential in people. This is one of the greatest joys of my job. Being in this position allows me to ensure that we’re recruiting diversely, that our leadership is diverse, and that, again, we’ll have lots of different perspectives in the room.”


  1. Active physicians by sex and specialty. Association of American Medical Colleges. 2021.Accessed July 7, 2023.


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