Medical faculty addresses gender inequities in academic community at symposium

Wednesday, June 7, 2017 - 1:33pm

Close to 200 attendees filled the Kahn Auditorium of the Biomedical Science Research Building Wednesday morning for a symposium titled “Strategies to Empower Women to Achieve Academic Success,” which examined gender gaps and inequities in the medical academic world, as well as strategies to overcome them.

Beginning with two keynote speakers and followed by a panel discussion and focus groups, the symposium aimed to identify problems and inequities in the University of Michigan Medical School as well as the field in general and develop workable strategies to tackle them, according to Eva Feldman, director of the Taubman Medical Research Institute.

“We want to have clear deliverables from today,” Feldman said. “I hope as a first step, this is the first conversation of many, but the content of this conversation is not going to end when we leave this room at 11 o’clock, but rather it’s going to be carried forward in a very systematic way.”

Keynote speaker Dr. Reshma Jagsi, director of the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine, presented research on the gender gaps in academic medicine — which include those in senior academic positions — compensation, funding and publishing of research.

Highlighting the importance of research, Jagsi said published work is crucial to science and academia.

“In 2013 to 2014… only 1 in 5 full professors were women, 15 percent department chairs and 16 percent of medical school deans,” she said. “Only 12.7 percent of senior authors of original research in the New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association and Annals of Internal Medicine combined in 2004 were women.”

  Focusing on the underlying causes and corresponding interventions, Jagsi also spoke of many factors, including differences between men and women in labor relations, conscious and unconscious biases and the disproportionate impacts that child rearing has on women’s careers.

“These differences accumulate over time and concrete, targeted interventions are required,” Jagsi said.

She added mentorship and the institution of double-blind peer reviewing as examples of possible methods for intervention.

The event's other keynote speaker, Janet Bickel — a leadership development expert and adjunct assistant professor of Medical Education at George Washington University School — focused on the perception challenges women face and the conversations and strategies they could use to overcome them, noting the difficulty associated with having conversations about gender discrimination.

“It’s really challenging to focus on gender, because there’s so many tripwires,” Bickel said. “It’s difficult to talk about something so sensitive and so personal and yet so systemic … Even though we’re far into the next century, we’re still needing to find a language to talk about these  questions.”

Bickel discussed the ways women can be perceived differently for the same behaviors in the workplace, and the communication, listening and conflict management strategies they can utilize to change these effects.

Emma Dwyer, a program coordinator in the office of faculty development, said she saw the symposium as a positive and important event but felt discouraged by some of its message.

“It personally frustrates me when women are told to be nicer in order to succeed, and while I do think it’s not bad advice, because women do get judged on their demeanor more heavily than men, it’s frustrating,” Dwyer said. “It’s not addressing the systemic inequalities in the workplace and instead we’re asking women to put a Band-Aid on the bigger issues.”

Another major focus of the symposium was the question of work and family integration, a burden more heavily carried by women in the academic world.

During the panel Q&A, Cristen Willer, an associate professor in internal medicine, remarked on difficulties of travel, networking and other practices required for advancement and promotion while simultaneously raising a family.

“I have five kids and it’s really hard for me to travel,” Willer said. “How do I juggle being competitive with men who have stay-at-home wives in terms of getting grant funding and writing papers and still make my kid’s preschool graduation? How do we develop a world for our daughters that allows them to compete and be strong scientists while still allowing them to do what they want to do in terms of raising a family and being the kind of mother they want to be?”

Several on the panel congratulated Willer on her achievements while raising a family and discussed many of the difficulties that they had experienced doing the same but left discussion of design and policy solutions for the focus groups. Willer had to leave before the groups assembled to attend her child’s preschool graduation, which was that day.