Navigating to the Top: Lessons Learned From Women in Academic Medicine

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Editor’s Note: For more on the topic of mentors for women, check out this AM Rounds post.

By: Susan K. Pingleton, MD, professor of medicine and associate dean continuing medical education, University of Kansas School of Medicine, Kansas City, Kansas; and Mary Zimmerman, PhD, professor of health policy and management, University of Kansas School of Medicine, Kansas City, Kansas.

In our roles as senior women faculty at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, we wondered if our experiences and those of our colleagues in achieving full professorship could be described and analyzed in a way that would be helpful—perhaps even inspiring—for the much larger group of younger women currently moving through the challenges of academic medicine.

We wanted to shed light not only on the barriers successful senior women have encountered through their academic careers, but also to examine and share with younger women some of the strategies used to overcome them. While survey, general review, and opinion data exist, little qualitative scholarship has been applied to this issue, especially focusing on a select group of medical women professors. Therefore, we embarked on an oral history project, described in our recent Academic Medicine article, with our senior colleagues.

When we issued the invitation for this study, almost 90% (26/30) of female professors at our medical center agreed to in-depth, individual interviews about their experiences. We explored the perceived barriers and, more importantly, how these women navigated the labyrinth of academic medicine to achieve promotion to full professorship and, for many, to leadership achievement.

Challenges encountered included the often subterranean stereotypes and biases, which we now characterize as part of being perceived and treated as an “other,” and dealing with work-life balance issues, especially child rearing. Those familiar with the history of women in medicine will find little new in the accounts of obstacles faced; however, our study is unique and noteworthy for documenting the deliberate steps these women took to manage and counter these challenges.

Among the most interesting of these was the purposeful downplaying of their femininity—in dress, hairstyle, demeanor, etc. To a surprising degree, these high-achieving, talented women worked to minimize their difference as women in a predominantly male environment, using humor and sometimes holding back to stay out of the spotlight and not draw attention to themselves. They were not oblivious to the challenges around them, but their medical work and research were their priorities and most chose to work for change within the academic system rather than through resisting it. For many, leadership opportunities emerged in large part due to developing specific skills, being proactive in taking advantage of available opportunities, and working to better understand the academic environment.

There are several takeaways for junior faculty. First off, if you do not have a mentor, find one! Essentially every one of these successful women could identify a mentor, usually a man, who dramatically affected their career. Key mentors were sponsors who opened doors and connected the women with important resources. Search and find someone who is willing to serve that function. And be sure you are willing to provide the effort good mentoring requires.

Second, success for women in academic medicine requires perseverance and stamina. Understanding and working with the academic system is important; however, today we recognize medical institutions, too, must adapt. They must become more women-friendly! They need stronger policies to support young women physicians, educators, and researchers. If you have a Women in Medicine and Science (WIMS) chapter at your institution, become active. If not, start one. Institutional change, in our view, is facilitated through WIMS chapter activities.

We, as senior faculty, should also help to ensure such an environment and work with younger colleagues to demand support for their professional growth, most especially paid parental leave and childcare. Many times, even today, women themselves are blamed for perceived deficiencies and for the difficulties they encounter. As we have demonstrated in our study, they instead should be honored for their achievements that many times are accomplished in spite of a hostile environment.

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  1. What’s New and In the Queue for Academic Medicine | AM Rounds
    August 2, 2016 at 7:01 AM

    […] Silent Bias: Challenges, Obstacles, and Strategies for Leadership Development in Academic Medicine–Lessons From Oral Histories of Women Professors at the University of Kansas Pingleton and colleagues interviewed female full professors at one medical school to assess the challenges encountered by women in academic medicine and to explore strategies for success and lessons learned for leadership development. A blog post to this article written by two of the authors is available. […]