The Corpus Callosum

Gender Gap In Academic Medicine

This is from a study published in the latest NEJM: The “Gender Gap” in
Authorship of Academic Medical Literature — A 35-Year
Perspective [abstract/full
(subscription required for full text and editorial)].

First, the good news:

During the past four decades, the participation of
women in medicine has increased dramatically. Women now represent 49
percent of all medical students,1 as compared with 6 percent in 1960.2
Overall, 25 percent of practicing physicians in the United States are
women, and women now make up 32 percent of full-time medical faculty

Women comprise very nearly half of all medical students.  I’ve
heard that some schools have or have had classes in which more than
half were women.  Assuming that proportion persists, in a few
decades, the entire profession will be 50:50.  

Now the bad news:

However, there is considerable evidence that women
continue to be underrepresented in the top tiers of academic medicine.
Women currently make up 10 percent of medical school deans, 11 percent
of department chairs, and 14 percent of full professors among the
clinical faculty in medical schools. Women last composed 14 percent of
all medical students in 1972. In addition, only 10 percent of female
clinical faculty members as compared with 28 percent of male clinical
faculty members are full professors.

In the rest of the article, the authors discuss the usual culprits:
“the constraints of traditional sex roles, manifestations of sexism in
the medical environment, and lack of effective mentors.”  They
also cite findings that women academic physicians tended to get
less allocated to them, in terms of office/lab space, salary, etc.
 The recommendation:

[I]t may also be appropriate to consider making
awards for career development independent of the number of years since
medical school or since one’s first faculty appointment.

What I am curious about, is the role of mentors in this gender gap.
 During medical school, I was impressed by the influence of
role models.  Clearly, the majority of faculty are men, hence
the majority of role models are men.  But the question is
this: Why does it matter?  Are men less effective as mentors
for women protégés?  Are women
physicians more likely to advance in their careers, if they have female

If so, is there something that can be done to help men who are
mentoring women physicians be more effective?  

I’ve been asking myself if I treat men in medical school differently
than women, and I cannot see any systematic difference.  Is
that because of unconscious bias?  Would I be able to tell if
I were giving some kind of preferential treatment?

Persons in supervisory positions in medical education probably need to
ask themselves these kinds of questions.  But I am not
confident that casual introspection is going to result in much change.
 It’ll probably require more systematic research to figure out
how to make changes in the system.  


  1. #1 Greg P
    July 21, 2006

    Sometimes we need to just let observations stay as observations, rather than thinking we need to “fix” something.

    Just because there are more women entering medicine doesn’t mean they have the same goals and the same approach to medicine as a career.
    What I see in the women coming into practice is (seemingly) more of them practicing part-time, having surprisingly short or interrupted careers (having children being one of the reasons).

    In many medical schools, administrators will frequently have a strong track record of practicing and teaching before they shift out of these areas, and I think that’s the way the faculty would want it to be. They also don’t want a part-time administrator.

    To some extent this is happening in the business world as well. It’s not completely about the glass ceiling.

  2. #2 Joseph j7uy5j
    July 21, 2006

    Right; I agree that we don’t necessary need to fix something. But we do want to be vigiliant if there is some evidence for an inequity, and to correct it if possible.

    I guess the point is that we want to be sure that women really do have equal opportunity. What an individual does with that opportunity is up to the individual.

    I personally chose to not go into academics, and even if I had chosen that path, I certainly would not want to be an administrator. But I would have been fairly irritated if someone had implied that I could not or should not follow that path, or got in the way of my following that path.

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