To improve Americans’ health, let more women lead in medicine

Americans’ health is at serious risk. While needed changes in our healthcare system are now underway, what is missing from this equation is the full participation of women.

The Institute of Medicine describes a “health disadvantage” that causes people living in our country to die and suffer from injury and illness at "rates that are demonstrably unnecessary." The Association of American Medical College cautions that “unless we act now, America will face a shortage of more than 90,000 doctors in 10 years.” And the National Institutes of Health director warns that “many young scientists are on the verge of giving up, taking with them the talent needed to make tomorrow’s medical breakthroughs.” 

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The call to action is urgent. The U.S. needs more physicians, researchers, educators and leaders to provide patient care, discover new cures and treatments, train the next generation of providers and lead the entire medical enterprise toward a more sustainable existence.

A solution is within reach – women are ready, capable and willing to extend a healing hand, yet they are discouraged by systematic underrepresentation at leadership levels in medicine. Society and all members of the nation’s medical community must have the visionary courage to take corrective action – and transformational change must begin at the top.

The pipeline is leaking

U.S. medical schools have improved gender equity by enrolling increased numbers of women and creating a pipeline of future physicians that is now filled nearly half by women. Distressingly, despite this, indicators of progress in women’s leadership roles in medicine have failed to keep pace.

From 2006 to 2011, women among medical school deans remained at 12% and among assistant deans dropped two percentage points. For full-time medical school faculty in the advanced ranks of associate and full professors, the percentage of women increased an average of less than one percentage point per year between 2002 and 2012.

Among the 14 pharmaceutical companies in the 2013 Fortune 500, only one CEO is a woman.

The difficult truth is that educating and training more women in medicine has not translated into a corresponding increase in their leadership roles. It is time to take principled and resolute action.

Steps for closing the leadership gender gap 

1.       Create a culture of equity

•           A recent study showed that women physicians earn 71% of men’s wages after controlling for age, race, education and hours worked. Yet a culture of equity requires more than just ending gender discrimination in pay. There must also be focus on non-financial indicators such as equity in assignment of clinical space, research resources and committee opportunities.

2.         Address unconscious bias

•           All executives and managers should be trained in unconscious bias.  Targeting the challenges in academic medical centers, the AAMC created an online tutorial titled “What You Don’t Know: The Science of Unconscious Bias and What To Do About it in the Search and Recruitment Process.”

•           Scientific symposia must include more female speakers. A recent study showed that adding at least one woman to the group that invites speakers increased female speakers by 72% compared with all-male groups. 

3.         Provide family-friendly policies and benefits

•           A holistic suite of programs should be offered, including paid maternity and paternity leave; leaves for adoption and elder care; flexible work hours and alternative work schedules; and extension of the promotion and tenure clocks.  These programs also must be offered to junior researchers (e.g., fellows, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars who are often considered trainees not employees) to make it possible to have and raise a family at any career stage.

•           Leadership must make taking advantage of these programs the norm.  Women still hesitate to utilize family-friendly policies due to concerns about decreasing face time with bosses, losing professional seniority, and being viewed as undedicated.

4.  Improve mentoring and networking

•           Mentoring programs must help women navigate the pressures and sacrifices they still face in workplaces and society. Both men and women must mentor women and do so in high profile ways that encourage others to participate.

A prouder profession through gender equity

Health is a profession that is guided by doing the right thing for patients; now is the time for the profession to do the right thing for itself. Failing to make medical career paths hospitable to women and advancing so few into leadership roles is socially unjust and nationally irresponsible. The U.S. has a long way to go before achieving the promise of equality and opportunity for all – now is the time to address this challenge as an overdue step toward creating a healthier nation.

Pomeroy is president of The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation.

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