Advancing Women Leaders in Medicine: What We Know

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A discussion of the challenges women face as well as the progress we’ve made.

Welcome to our Advancing Women Leaders series.

During the following months, we’ll be taking a look at the history of moving women into leadership positions within institutions, as well as the current state of women leadership in medicine.

There are now more women entering the medical field than ever before—even more than men—but that hasn’t necessarily translated into an increase in female leadership.

In fact, according to Harvard Business Review (HBR), “women account for only 18% of hospital CEOs and 16% of all deans and department chairs in the U.S.” 

So what’s keeping women in medicine from advancing into leadership roles, and what can we do to improve these statistics?

What’s Holding Women Back

HBR notes that there are many reasons for gender disparity in the medical C-Suite, including:

  • Women in academic medicine have more trouble finding mentors and sponsors than men, likely contributing to career disparities. (PubMed report, JAMA report)

  • Highly qualified women don’t receive independent grants, publications, and leadership positions at the same rate as men. (PubMed report)

  • Women in medicine don’t achieve promotions or advancement to leadership positions at the same rate as their male peers. (PubMed report)

Knowing these are the primary barriers, we also know there are underlying, contributing factors such as unconscious bias, the Maternal Wall, systemic sexism, and sexual harassment, to name a few. 

We also know that there’s work being done to address these challenges.

Making Progress

Johns Hopkins

2019 Alma Dea Morani Award winner Linda P. Fried published a landmark study in 1996 entitled “Career development for women in academic medicine: Multiple interventions in a department of medicine.” According to the Hopkins Medicine Winter 2018 publication:

Fried’s paper meticulously examined which Department of Medicine initiatives were successful, including those aimed at increasing salary equity, providing faculty mentors well-versed in the path to academic promotion and offering a workspace culture that didn’t penalize women (or men) for attending to family needs. Her data-driven, methodologically precise framework helped to set in motion a fundamental change in academic medicine at Johns Hopkins.

In fact, the report found that the Department of Medicine’s initiatives got results. Between 1990 and 1995, the department experienced a 550% increase in women who became associate professors, and an interim survey showed a 183% increase in women who expected to be in academic medicine 10 years down the road.

In 1997, a year after the report was published, Johns Hopkins University created a Diversity Leadership Council. This council continues to advise the University President on matters of diversity and inclusion and is comprised of about 50 members from across all nine divisions of Johns Hopkins. The Council “encourages programs that are supporting diversity, inclusion, and equal opportunity at the university and health system and urges progress in areas where the institutions need to improve”.

They’ve created a thorough roadmap to diversity and inclusion, and also are informed by both the Office of Women & Gender Resources as well as the Office of Women in Science and Medicine (OWISM), the latter being solely dedicated to “the advancement of women faculty, [serving] to network women at all ranks in the 33 Departments of the School of Medicine, and offer[ing] educational programs to meet the needs of all women faculty”.

So how is Johns Hopkins doing today? Hopkins Medicine reports that by FY 2016, women faculty salaries were nearly equal to that of men (a 1.9% difference) and, as of winter 2018, women made up roughly 40% of both the combined pool of instructors, assistant, and associate professors, as well as all associate and assistant deans. 

There’s still work to be done, however, as upper leadership positions were still largely male dominated, with only five of 32 departments chaired by women.

Drexel University

Another program that has seen results is Drexel University College of Medicine’s Hedwig van Ameringen Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine (ELAM) Program, a year-long, part-time fellowship for women faculty in schools of medicine, dentistry, public health, and pharmacy.

The program is “dedicated to developing the professional and personal skills required to lead and manage in today’s complex health care environment, with special attention to the unique challenges facing women in leadership positions.” The program has been in existence for over 25 years, and more than 1,000 ELAM alumnae now hold leadership positions in institutions around the world.

University of Wisconsin-Madison

In their paper “Effect of an Intervention to Break the Gender Bias Habit for Faculty at One Institution: A Cluster Randomized, Controlled Trial,” a group of professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison offered a gender bias habit-changing intervention to experimental departments. 

Their motivation? “Despite sincere commitment to egalitarian, meritocratic principles, subtle gender bias persists, constraining women’s opportunities for academic advancement.” 

Their efforts proved fruitful, with the study finding that “an intervention that facilitates intentional behavioral change can help faculty break the gender bias habit and change department climate in ways that should support the career advancement of women in academic medicine, science, and engineering.”

The “significantly greater changes post-intervention” included:

  • Self-efficacy to engage in gender-equity promoting behaviors

  • Self-reported action to promote gender equity

  • Greater perceptions of department fit, valuing of their research, and comfort in raising personal and professional conflicts

Next Steps

Programs like these are addressing the issue head on, and if other universities are willing to take the lead and institute similar initiatives, more women would see success, especially when it comes to advancement into leadership positions.

As individuals, we can spur progress as well. One of the best ways to do this is to share our own leadership stories. How did we advance our own careers? What were the struggles? Where did we find support? 

Sharing our own experiences can help the next generation of women in medicine find their own footing by reminding them that they are part of a larger community of women who have been in their shoes—which may ultimately help them move their way up the ranks.

Without your continued support, these stories would not be possible. Please donate to The Foundation to keep our collective legacy as women in medicine alive.