Gender Disparities in Academic Medicine

Gabriela K. Popescu, PhD ’99, is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and a leading neuroscientist who directs NIH-funded research on the biophysical mechanisms of learning and memory. She serves on the Association of American Medical Colleges’ (AAMC’s) board of directors and is chair of the AAMC’s Council of Faculty and Academic Societies, which is charged with identifying and voicing critical issues facing medical school faculty and academic societies. She also serves as chair of the Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women within the Biophysical Society, the international scientific society of biophysicists.

By Gabriela K. Popescu, PhD

We in academic medicine have known for some time that inherited social inequities prevent us from keeping our fundamental pledge to do no harm. We have, even if unwittingly, harmed people and stymied our own aspiration for excellence by ignoring the systematic disenfranchisement of certain populations.

Discrimination on the basis of race and sex, along with other protected characteristics, has been illegal in the United States for more than half a century. Yet, as a nation, we are far from achieving equity in the workplace. In academic medicine, we have not been the leaders, humanists or healers we aspire to be. Just last year the National Academies of Sciences documented substantial sexual harassment and gender discrimination in academic sciences and medicine, and acknowledged their corrosive effect on our humanistic mission. This report, along with the concurrent MeToo movement, has brought home the reality experienced by large numbers of our students, trainees and colleagues. How can the situation be so dire after years of intentional efforts to combat discriminatory practices? To even aspire to do better going forward, it is important to acknowledge the harsh truth that academic medicine has been historically unfriendly to women and that progress over the past 25 years has been marginal.

For almost two decades, women have been applying to, matriculating in, and graduating from medical schools in equal numbers with men. Yet the latest statistics from the Association of American Medical Colleges (2018-19) show that only 41 percent of full-time faculty are women, and of these, most remain in low-rung positions. Currently, women represent only 25 percent of full professors, 18 percent of chairs, 29 percent of chiefs and 18 percent of deans. These low percentages have been stable over the last two decades and result in power differentials that obstruct progress in achieving gender equity.

Therefore, to reach our common goals of excellence, we must take immediate and concrete action to transform our environment into one that is inclusive, respectful and equitable for all learners and workers.

Fortunately, leading scholars have joined to recommend interventions and to provide resources for institutions and individuals committed to action. The National Academies of Sciences’ report stressed the need to move beyond compliance and reporting and to take the steps necessary to transform the culture of academic medicine. The AAMC has issued a similar call to action for all its member institutions and societies. Both recommend a focus on defusing power differentials by increasing the number of women who serve in senior and leadership positions, making women’s achievements more visible, and increasing transparency and accountability throughout the system.

With specific recommendations such as these, along with a growing body of research and an agreed-upon strategic plan in place at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, we are ready to begin articulating metrics and specific goals to increase gender equity.

If over the next 25 years we firmly commit to optimizing the potential of all members of our community, regardless of gender, then we will mark the 200th anniversary of the Jacobs School by celebrating a level excellence that more accurately reflects our humanistic mission—and perhaps even elevates it.