Culture Shifts and Women’s Leadership Roles: Are They A Likely Match?

By: Deborah Helitzer, ScD, professor, Family and Community Medicine, and associate vice chancellor for research education, University of New Mexico

The strategies described by Hannah Valantine and Christy Sandborg in their commentary, Changing the Culture of Academic Medicine to Eliminate the Gender Leadership Gap: 50/50 by 2020, are creative approaches designed to support the faculty AND the missions of the Stanford academic medical environment. The strategies include career planning, teamwork, and acknowledgement by institutional leaders that there are other types of work outside the academic environment that take time, energy, and focus (such as house cleaning and meal preparation) away from their ability to be productive at work.

Valantine and Sandborg begin their commentary with a lament about the dearth of women faculty; they echo a national call to increase the probability that women will stay in academic medicine. Recent statistics suggest that 40% leave before the end of their 7th year of an academic appointment. Valantine and Sandborg suggest that their goal is to help women to attain 50% of the leadership positions by 2020. I’m not convinced that Stanford’s approaches to creating an institutional culture that recognizes and supports the multiple challenges facing their very productive employees also will result in more success at increasing women’s desire to attain leadership positions in academic medicine.

Stanford’s neighbors at Google corporate headquarters have embraced a core culture that focuses on collaboration and helping employees to make more time for things outside work, especially family. Similar strategies as those Stanford is adopting, such as team and individual goals and flexibility in work hours, complement a work environment that includes “microkitchens” stocked with healthy food, on-site physicians, and “mother’s rooms”. Benefits include time off for parental leave. Around the world, this culture helps Google win “best place to work” awards.

Stanford’s approaches to improving the culture for their faculty are innovative for academic medical institutions. They will certainly help Stanford be a better place to work. Will they help Stanford maintain its hard earned high rankings in research, education, and clinical care? Highly likely. But how will a culture shift change the ways that women perceive their work environment and the decisions they make about how to work? For example, the Affordable Care Act will put pressure on institutions to increase access to primary care. Will women, who are more often found in primary care departments, continue to opt for part-time work more often than men? Nationwide, researchers are facing the threat of reduced extramural funding and are working harder to achieve less. Will those pressures discourage young faculty from staying in academic medicine? How will these realities impact Stanford’s ability to change its culture? Will a change in culture impact women’s desire to take on leadership positions? We won’t know for several years.

As a full professor and institutional leader, I’m very aware of my responsibility and the opportunity to create a supportive culture for junior faculty. As a woman, I’m very conscious of the need to sponsor, mentor, and coach more junior female students, staff, and faculty members, so that they can develop rewarding and satisfying careers in academic medicine. From my perspective as a leader, we have a long way to go. I appreciate what Stanford is doing to make their institution a better place to work. Like Google, Stanford is an exceptional institution. Can Stanford’s experience become a model program for other academic medical institutions? I hope we will be able to learn from their experience. In the meantime, all of us have the same opportunity—to try innovative approaches to impact our institutional cultures so that faculty can attain their goals while working in a collaborative environment where women are encouraged to take on leadership roles.

Related Posts

One Comment

  1. Kemi Tomobi
    October 10, 2013 at 3:39 AM

    I like that the culture shift that is desired for women leadership in academic medicine is compared to that of Google, a neighboring organization that is so different than academic medicine.

%d bloggers like this: