Collaborating to Achieve Gender Equity in Medical Schools

By Jeanette Mladenovic, PhD

Gender equity remains a frustratingly unrealized goal in STEM fields, including in medicine. A new partnership—the GEMS Alliance (Gender Equity in academic Medicine and Science,— aims to address the ongoing gap. This collaborative effort by six medical organizations (see inset) envisions creating innovative approaches to achieving gender equity.

Our alliance has decided to focus first on schools of medicine where the biased culture around gender is evident, learned, and perpetuated. Decades of research have demonstrated myriad barriers and structural systems that impede gender equity for faculty, students, and postdocs in these institutions. Recognizing this, the GEMS Alliance is determined to tackle four identified gaps that must be addressed in order to solve this complex problem:

  1. The PIPELINE to Science and Medical School: While we should applaud the increased number of women in our pipeline (women now represent 50% of students in medical school and over 50% of PhD students in biological sciences), the women who are admitted do not reflect our diverse communities. Students from historically excluded groups may have unique lived experiences that are vital to solving today’s problems. However, they may also have limited exposure to career paths in science and medicine, and they may lack the knowledge of programmatic and financial strategies that can facilitate success in these fields. We must increase the diversity in the pipeline, if we are to achieve equity across our fields.
  2. GENDER SEGREGATION in scientific and medical careers: Historically, women have gravitated toward certain careers and not others. Whether it was the best fit for their interests and their desired work/life balance, or whether they were discouraged from STEM fields, the resulting occupational segregation robs science and patients of a diverse workforce. It also curtails the future professional opportunities and compensation available to women. We recognize that the hesitation by women to pursue science begins as early as postsecondary school and continues as women advance in their education and careers, including in medicine. We know that interrupting this cycle requires concerted efforts to expose women to scientific careers and role models; to provide gender neutral advice and mentoring; and to adapt the culture of training programs and postgraduate experiences so that women are encouraged to enter and flourish in them.
  3. The LEADERSHIP GAP in academic medicine, science, and healthcare in general: Achieving equity requires significant representation at the leadership level, which then serves as a tipping point for cultural change. Women leaders in higher education hire more women and provide higher and more equitable salaries. The percentage of women in leadership at the highest levels in our medical schools, where critical decisions and policies are made and resources are controlled, has slowly inched upward over the last three decades, now comprising approximately 22%. To increase the representation of women in leadership, we must address the issues of recruitment and retention as well as promote adequate numbers of women to the senior academic positions from which the highest level leadership roles are filled. Our leadership should reflect our communities of students, faculty, and patients.
  4. UNEQUAL BURDENS for women: Equity can’t be achieved unless individuals receive what they need for their success. Given the differential expectations society places on women, women often carry the primary burdens of caring for their family and home. The pandemic has only accentuated these burdens, potentially leading to irrevocable harm to our academic workforce. Caregivers desperately need support tailored to their specific challenges, support that allows them to engage in the rigors of PhD programs and medical school, to enter training in their chosen field, and to achieve success in academia, research, and leadership. Caregivers need flexibility to juggle their work/life challenges; however this necessary support exists as the exception rather than as the rule. Creating solutions that allow caregivers to have control over their work/life balance are critical to achieving equity in our schools, our professions, and our workforce.

The GEMS Alliance is committed to addressing all of these obstacles to gender equity. We believe that by aligning our efforts to actively focus on creative solutions to these gaps, we stand a better and more timely chance of success.

Dr. Jeanette Mladenovic is the President/ CEO of the Center for Women in Academic Medicine and Science. She has served in several leadership roles that have given her a broad understanding of the many issues that shape the trajectory of women’s careers. In her last academic position, she served as Executive Vice-President and Provost at Oregon Health Sciences University. Dr. Mladenovic graduated from the University of Washington Medical School. She also trained in internal medicine and hematology at Johns Hopkins Hospital and Stanford University.