Third-year medical student Nafisa Absher is the co-founder and co-president of the Black Medical Students' Association (BMSA) at the College of Medicine. (Submitted photo)

Women in Leadership: Nafisa Absher

Third-year medical student Nafisa Absher, and co-founder/co-president of the Black Medical Students' Association talks about her passion for social justice and health equity for marginalized communities.

March 8 is recognized as International Women’s Day, and the theme for 2021 is “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world."

Taking our cue on that theme, we are profiling women in leadership at the College of Medicine, selecting from a variety of positions including learners, staff, faculty, and senior administration.

What is your current position and leadership role/title?

I’m currently a third-year medical student, co-president/co-founder of the Black Medical Students’ Association (BMSA) within the College of Medicine, and the Western Regional Director of the Black Medical Students’ Association of Canada (BMSAC). Through these opportunities, my colleagues and I engage in advocacy to increase the representation of students from marginalized and underserved communities in medicine. 

Describe one barrier you experience, and something that helped you overcome that barrier, in your journey to leadership?

My passion for social justice and health equity for marginalized communities stems from my lived experiences of coming to Canada as a Refugee. I have firsthand seen how social inequities, such as poverty impacted my family and my community negatively. Although it was challenging to navigate the barriers that came with these circumstances, I learned that community involvement was not only a responsibility, but it was necessary. I am thankful for the mentors that have empowered me to embrace my identity and voice to allow me to speak up when called to.

How do you think COVID-19 has affected women’s progress in your field or the workplace in general?

Existing gender inequality has been further exacerbated by the pandemic. It has manifested in various ways across different fields, and Medicine is not excluded from contributing to this oppression. Gender inequality in Medicine manifests through the gender pay gap, where women physicians continue to earn less than men within and between various specialties. This inequality is not explained by women working less, but rather stems from the systemic bias that exists within our institution which continues to disadvantage female physicians.

Moreover, as female medical students, an implicit hidden curriculum exists that aims to divert women to “family-friendly” specialties and cautions against entering male-dominated specialties. This further perpetuates harmful gender stereotypes and contributes to women’s underrepresentation in many specialties. In order to keep making progress in this area, we need to continuously challenge gender bias in medical education and within various specialties. 

What advice would you have for people (of any gender) in leadership who wish to be allies in advancing women in the workplace? 

For allies in leadership positions, it is important to engage women in decision-making processes in ways that empowers them to freely share their lived experiences and voice their needs. Now more than ever, we must listen and learn from one another’s experiences and come up with solutions that are evidence-based, equitable and sustainable.

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