Bias holds women back in academic medicine, studies suggest

Even equally qualified female physicians are promoted at lower rates

While nearly half of medical school graduates are women, female doctors and researchers are far less likely to obtain full professorships at medical schools and gain access to biomedical research funding, according to two new studies in JAMA.

Study findings

For the larger of the two studies, researchers examined 2014 data on about 30,000 female and 61,000 male doctors with faculty appointments at U.S. medical schools, including information on their NIH funding, specialty, and publication history.

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Overall, just 3,600 women had full professorships, compared with 17,000 men.  

"That's kind of a distinct problem that you can't solve by institutional support and mentorship. There's some discrimination," Anupam Jena, study lead author and an associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, told Kaiser Health News.

Researchers found that women also tended to be published less, and less likely to have received grant funding from NIH.

The second study, conducted by Health Resources in Action researchers, examined funding applications for two New England-based research programs focused on supporting junior biomedical researchers. The findings suggest women had a more difficult time getting funded, but the authors stressed the study was small and additional research is needed.

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Explaining the data

Even so, an editorial accompanying the studies argued the message was clear: "The potential of women in medicine and science, like those in many other professions, has not been fully realized," the authors wrote, citing structural problems in academic medicine that disadvantage women as a major cause.

Carrie Byington, co-author of the editorial and associate VP for faculty and academic affairs at the University of Utah Health Sciences (UUHS), told Kaiser Health News that women have more difficulty finding mentors and are held back by strict tenure policies that penalize them for having children.

"The result of this failure to progress is that we have fewer women in leadership roles and fewer women to serve as mentors to the next generation of physician scientists," she told Reuters.

Fighting bias

Byington and her co-author Vivian Lee, the CEO of University of Utah Health Care, called for leaders at medical schools to implement training programs that counter unconscious bias. In addition, they suggested academic intuitions:

  • Increase the transparency of the hiring process;
  • Revise promotion and tenure policies to recognize achievements outside of basic science;
  • Expand the use of family-friendly policies such as paid parental leave; and
  • Establish formal mentorship programs that cater to all faculty (Luthra, Kaiser Health News, 9/15; Rapaport, Reuters, 9/15; Rappleye, Becker's Hospital Review, 9/15).

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