Why Transforming the Culture of Academic Medicine Matters for Women

By: Alyssa Westring, PhD, assistant professor of management, DePaul University. She is a 2013 fellow of the OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter at @alyssawestring.

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) recently published a blog post that I wrote, which highlighted important findings from two articles that our research team has published in Academic Medicine. The first article described what a “culture conducive to women’s academic success” looks like for the work environment of academic medicine. The second article built upon the topic to explore how this culture impacts women’s work-life balance.

Our HBR article summarized four key factors that together create a “culture conducive to women’s academic success”:

  • A recognition and appreciation of the non-work aspects of life—where all employees are able to bring their authentic selves to the workplace and to seek support for work-life challenges
  • Equal access to resources and opportunities, such as administrative support, research space and funding, and positions on influential committees
  • A willingness to address subtle and overt gender biases by, for example, addressing (rather than dismissing) women’s concerns of inequality and challenging those who don’t give credit or leadership opportunities to women
  • A supervisor who is actively engaged in supporting women’s careers and leader commitment to addressing frequent obstacles to women’s career success

We hypothesized that the culture of the department/division would impact the extent to which long work hours had a negative impact on women’s work-family balance. We found that in supportive cultures, women were largely buffered from the negative effects of long work hours on work-family conflict.

We write, “Ultimately, we made a remarkable discovery: the relationship between work hours and work-family conflict hinged largely on this often overlooked variable. Indeed, women working 60 hours a week in the most supportive departments fared significantly better than those working 45 hours a week in work units viewed as less supportive.”

While these findings are both interesting and important for addressing gender gaps in academic medicine, it has become increasingly urgent to develop and evaluate evidence-based interventions to address these cultural barriers. Our research is one of the first randomized-controlled trials to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions addressed at changing the culture and experiences of women in academic medicine. Most efforts targeted to women’s career needs are either top-down (e.g., implementing a new mentoring program or flexibility policies) or bottom-up (e.g., negotiation or research skills training for women faculty).  However, based on our understanding of how the culture is deeply embedded in all layers of the organizational environment, we developed and implemented a three-tiered intervention:

  • Women faculty participate in two innovative career development programs: Total Leadership and manuscript writing group
  • Each intervention department/division organizes a task force that develops local, customized solutions to women’s career barriers, many of which support all faculty (men and women)
  • Senior leaders actively support the interventions and generate momentum for culture change efforts

We are in the midst of data analysis to assess the impact of this three-tiered intervention on the culture of the departments/divisions, as well as on key outcomes for women’s careers (e.g., work-life balance, academic productivity, intention to leave the institution. We are looking forward to sharing the findings of our experimental research with Academic Medicine readers. In the meantime, we hope to encourage our colleagues to pursue research projects that assess the culture of their institutions and departments/divisions for women’s careers and to move toward the implementation and evaluation of interventions that create culture change and advance the careers of women in academic medicine.

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