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Women are still missing from academic leadership roles

July 25, 2016

Three years into her first academic appointment, Dr. Paula Rochon, vice-president of research at Women’s College Hospital, had three small children.

Dr.  Paula Rochon
Dr. Paula Rochon presents as the Retired Teachers of Ontario (RTO/ERO) Chair in Geriatric Medicine

She also faced a mountain of professional expectations. Establishing herself as a doctor and scientist, earning grants, joining collaborations and writing her first publications. And quickly — scientists were at that time expected to show their potential within the first five years of their career. “It took eight years before I received my first promotion,” Dr. Rochon says. “But balancing work and life was important. I always took my children to school and returned home for dinner.”

She was not alone. Family priorities and bad timing make it challenging for women to establish academic careers, and even more so to move into academic leadership positions such as dean or vice-president of research. In a commentary published in Academic Medicine, Drs. Rochon, Wendy Levinson and Frank Davidoff describe their experiences in light of the evidence.

Their research suggests that in 25 years, a considerable amount has changed to support women in pursuing academic leadership roles, but there is still a long way to go. In the early 1990s, the numbers of women graduating from medical schools was increasing rapidly, leaving the impression that more women would fill leadership roles as well.

That wasn’t the case. About half of medical school graduates in North America are women, but they represent less than a fifth of medical school deans and chairs. Women are more likely than men to leave research and those who stay in academic medicine are promoted at a slower rate than their male colleagues. Some, like Dr. Rochon, focus their research time into finite periods to spend time with their families, often writing manuscripts late at night. They may limit travel to conferences, which means less time to disseminate their research.

While trying to recruit women into academic medicine leadership roles, Dr. Levinson found that they were often missing from short lists during search committees unless she requested them. Initiatives such as sponsorship programs have helped, but there is a long way to go. Institutions should appoint more women to their search and award committees. Those committees should build in reminders to consider women for each shortlist they draw up.

In the realm of medical journals, Dr. Davidoff has observed that very few women served as editors-in-chief of biomedical journals until recently. Over the several years he spent as editor of a medical journal, more women were hired into senior roles. However, the number of women on editorial boards is still much smaller than the proportion of women in the medical fields those journals cover. A Nature survey in 2012 found that only 18 per cent of the scientists they profiled were women. Comparably few women wrote commissioned articles, which journals often request from senior academic leadership.

“We need to restructure academic career paths, so that fewer women are racing to build their academic careers at a time in their lives when family demands are the highest,” Dr. Rochon says. “We should consider an approach to academic medical careers that is more like a long-distance run than a sprint.”

Most importantly, she adds, academia needs to build an environment that accepts the realities of work-life balance while maintaining the highest scholarship standards — for men and women alike.

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