May 1, 2020
Sarah Martin, Ph.D. is the Vice President of Health Solutions at mySidewalk. She has been appointed to serve on two civic boards, the Kansas City Health Commission and Missouri’s Board of Healing Arts, through the Appointments Project.
What has serving on a public board or commission been like and what does your board do?
I was appointed by Mayor James to the KCMO Health Commission — my first experience with an appointed position in Missouri. I had just moved to the area from California, and the Health Commission was a crash course in KCMO politics and policy — the good, bad and ugly! I jumped in head first, and soon found myself chairing a committee and working overtime to offer pro bono services to the city. Eventually, it was so successful that I left my job as a tenure-track professor to serve as Deputy Director of the Health Department, overseeing the very commission I had been appointed to.
My service on the Board of Healing Arts is a gubernatorial appointment and required Senate confirmation, which was quite an interesting experience. Serving as the only non-MD or DO member on the licensing board has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It is challenging, fulfilling and sometimes frustrating. We are responsible for ensuring that Missourians are safe, even when that means weighing the need for more care in shortage areas against the need for the highest quality of care.
What inspired you to apply to serve?
I’ve felt called into public service since as far back as I can remember. I was inspired to apply for a couple of reasons. First, the credibility of the Women’s Foundation was well-known. I knew that our values were aligned, and that they believed what I believed — that women deserved more representation, regardless of political party, in all levels of government. Second, I was hungry to contribute my experience in health and health care in my newly adopted hometown and home state. Serving on boards or commissions is an immersive experience, and I knew I would expand my professional networks much faster by partnering with the Foundation.
Is there anything that’s surprised you or a challenge you didn’t anticipate?
Because the local appointment process was somewhat casual and low-key, I was not prepared for the pomp and circumstance of the state appointment process. Because I was appointed during a politically fraught time by a Democratic governor, I had to learn quickly that any resistance to my appointment had nothing to do with me personally — it was all part of a political turf war that I could not solve. I did my best to connect with Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle and find commonalities. The Foundation equipped me with the right team to help me win confirmation. It was a life lesson I will hang on to when I run for office myself one day!
What’s the current gender makeup of your board? How does having (or lacking) diversity impact the effectiveness of the board?
For the first time in the history of the board, our past president, current president (me!) and incoming president are all women. I have seen a shift in board culture as more women serve in leadership roles. Recently, we have focused efforts on internal policies related to reducing implicit bias in board investigations, trauma-informed investigatory techniques for survivors of sexual assault, as well as reducing stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment. Not all of these initiatives were solely championed by women, but I do think the diversity has created an atmosphere where empathy and equity are core tenets and both women and men feel more comfortable pitching innovative ideas.
What advice do you have for other women considering serving on a board or commission?
My biggest advice is: DO IT. There is no one more qualified than YOU. Boards and commissions need real people with all sorts of experiences to serve, in order to best represent the needs of the community. My second piece of advice: spend the first part of your service watching, listening, asking questions about history or context of staff (staff is there to help you!) – – then start leaning in hard. Have the humility to know that your good idea might have been thought of already, and give some respect to those who have served before you. But couple that with the confidence that you belong there, your ideas are awesome, and your community is lucky to have you there.
Is there anything you wish you’d known going in?
I wish I would have been prepared better, mentally, for the emotional toll that my current board service would have on me. It’s not a bad thing, but it is sometimes a draining thing. The drain means that even after these 4 years of serving, I still care. I wish I had known it’s hard to compromise sometimes, when you know you are right and the stakes feel really high.
What do you see as some of the barriers that cause women to be underrepresented in these roles?
My hunch is that a big barrier is the established networks that tend to appoint buddies or colleagues or fraternity brothers. The Women’s Foundation has disrupted those networks. I think there is also a barrier of logistics — the time it takes to serve and the times that meetings are held. But the more women who serve, the more we can get board cultures to reflect the need to juggle work-life, home-life and board-life.
Why is it important that women step up to serve in these roles?
In addition to the culture change that can happen when more women serve, the people served by the board deserve to have their needs reflected. For example, on my board, how intimidating might it be for a female physician to appear before an all-male board in an already stressful situation? Conversely, it is important for male physicians accused of inappropriate behavior with female patients or staff to hear perspective from a woman on the board. Everyone benefits when the viewpoints are diverse, not just from a gender perspective, but on all levels. I hope that gender equity is just one part of a larger march towards parity by race, class and experience.
How has your work changed amid Covid-19?
As president of the Physician Licensing Board, Covid-19 has really affected our work. In addition to having to move meetings to a remote situation (harder than it might sound when you have public appearances and Sunshine Law!), there have been many policy tradeoffs to consider when it comes to keeping people safe. Because a lot of those discussions are ongoing, I can’t say much more, but it’s definitely a crazy time to be in this position.