Women in academic medicine are waiting for our #MeToo moment

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Because of sexism, many women in academic medicine are leaving the profession. On the picture: Dr Kriti Mohan, MD, physician in Houston. (Creative Commons)

COVID-19 doesn’t have a silver lining, but it has helped shine the spotlight on women working in academic medicine, the space in which doctors and scientists work together to create medical breakthroughs. These doctors and scientists are doing their research behind the scenes, out of the spotlight, but these breakthroughs matter – they helped make possible the rapid development of a COVID-19 vaccine, for example.

Some women scientists are well known. For example, Dr Jennifer Doudna and her collaborator Dr Emanuelle Charpentier won the 2020 Nobel Prize for their development of the CRISPR tool for editing DNA.

In contrast, other women are still almost invisible. Take Dr. Katalin Kariko, for example. His research into mRNA therapy has been used to develop the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which have saved countless lives. Yet for most of her career, no one in academic medicine took Kariko seriously as a scientist. She had almost no support from anyone in academia to help her with her work. The university did not give him tenure-track employment or start-up funds for his own laboratory; nor was she able to obtain grants to fund her research. Yet, against all odds, she persisted.

Sadly, Kariko’s experience is common among women, as I discovered when I first started researching the impact of gender in academic medicine. In 2019, I interviewed over 100 men and women at academic medical centers in the United States. Dozens of women I’ve spoken to have told me similar stories of having to overcome endless gender barriers.

The profession blocks their careers at every stage, in all kinds of ways:

  • An in-depth study from 2018 shows that the incidence of sexual harassment in the medical field is much higher than in other fields: “For harassment by faculty and staff, female medical students were 220% more likely than non-students.[science, engineering and math] majors to experience sexual harassment.
  • When women complain of sexual harassment at work, institutions are often slow to respond or fail to punish the perpetrators.
  • Women are promoted much less often than men, and a recent New England Journal of Medicine study shows that those numbers haven’t changed over the past three decades.
  • Women continue to be paid less than men: I published a study almost 20 years ago which showed that female physicians earn much less than their male counterparts. Two decades later, the pay gap remains largely the same.

Academic medicine cannot afford to lose so many talent

Academic medicine invents medical miracles – miracles such as prosthetic heart valves, prosthetic joints, cochlear implants, stem cell therapy, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy. These discoveries have improved our lives, our health and our well-being.

There are many talented women in academic medicine; if given the opportunity, they could produce After medical miracles. However, due to sexism, some of these women are leaving the profession.

Women I have spoken to have told me how badly they have been treated in the profession. Several told me that in the hospital, colleagues and patients thought they were nurses or housekeepers rather than experts. In college, many recounted how their colleagues silenced them and refused to credit them for their ideas. Moreover, they ignored them, paid them less, denigrated them and subjected them to sexual harassment.

These obstacles hamper women’s careers and eventually force some of them to quit university medicine altogether. It’s a waste of talent that we just can’t afford.

Gender bias in academic medicine

The inherent gender biases, much to blame, are alive and well in academic science. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published the John vs. Jennifer in 2012. According to this study, employers were more likely to offer a lab manager position to a candidate named John than to one named Jennifer. This was true even when they had identical resumes; and even worse, when they gave Jennifer the job, they offered her a lower salary than John’s.

There are an equal number of men and women in medical school and graduate school, and there is no evidence to suggest that these men are more talented than women. But the data still shows the same thing: once men and women have completed their training, their career paths diverge. As the men go up, the women often flee out of the pipeline. Among those who remain, few women advance to managerial positions. This leak is not accidental: sexism and harassment drive women out of the system.

It’s a #MeToo moment for science. It’s time to confront the systemic sexism rooted in academic medicine. If you don’t see this as a serious problem, just try to imagine the world without a COVID-19 vaccine.

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