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Female biomedical faculty progress toward parity

I was a junior at Stanford in 1991 when professor of neurosurgery Frances Conley, MD, objected to the promotion of a colleague to acting department chair by tendering her resignation. (Both the promotion and the resignation were later rescinded.) In her public statements, Conley revealed the treatment she and other women often received at the hands of their male colleagues, from exclusion and stereotyping to lewd remarks and unwanted touching.

Some months later, I sat with a small group of undergraduates and listened to Conley, the first female full professor of neurosurgery in the United States and, at the time, the only woman on the Stanford neurosurgery faculty. She told a story from many years prior, when a male colleague called out, in a roomful of surgeons, that he could see the outline of her breasts even through her white coat. Conley said it with a sharp edge in her voice, and I felt a sharp edge in my stomach when I heard it.

I recently caught up with Conley, now retired and living on the Northern California coast, for a story on women in academic medicine, which appears in a special issue of Stanford Medicine magazine on sex, gender and health. She is gratified to know that her decision in 1991 to speak up and her subsequent book, Walking Out on the Boys, have helped transform academic medicine. "How wonderful to see that things can change!" she emailed me after reading my article.

In my story, you'll meet a neurosurgeon, two surgeons, a cardiologist, a psychiatrist and a pediatrician. They'll be the first to tell you that, more than a generation later, the climate for women in academic medicine is much better. How do they know? They're scientists, and when they need to understand a phenomenon, they gather data.

They can tell you, for example, that the gender disparity in academic medicine is no longer the result of a "pipeline problem": Women are roughly 50 percent of U.S. medical students and more than half of those receiving PhDs in the biomedical sciences. But there are leaks in that pipeline, particularly as faculty advance into leadership ranks. Academic medicine's task now is to understand the causes of those leaks, and how to plug them. These are some of the faculty leading the way.

Instead of swatting away sexist remarks and wandering hands, they're studying how to remedy unconscious bias. Instead of focusing on why professorial parity enhances the cause of women's equality, they're focusing on why it benefits patients. And instead of opting not to have children, they're developing innovative programs to support all time-crunched professors who are also parents. As the School of Medicine's senior associate dean for faculty development and diversity, Yvonne (Bonnie) Maldonado (shown above), told me, "The issues that are traditionally thought to be gender-based are actually issues that affect all of us."

I can't wait to see what the next generation brings.

Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine reports on sex, gender and medicine, Stanford surgery chair Mary Hawn and the changing face of the OR, Bias busting: Brief educational session may help pave way for women to lead medical schools and NIH's Hannah Valantine shares insights on workplace diversity.
Photo by Lenny Gonzalez

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