Johns Hopkins Gazette: September 23, 1996

Obstacles Falling For Women At SOM

Women faculty at the
School of Medicine praise
cracks in "glass ceiling"

Steve Libowitz

The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine has always been among the leading institutions at educating women for the medical profession. And over the years, it has matriculated women who went on to become some of the world's most accomplished women medical practitioners and researchers: Helen Taussig, Caroline Bedell Thomas, Dorothy Reed. But like most medical schools, Hopkins has not always made it easy for its women faculty to advance in their careers.

But that has been changing, especially in the school's Department of Medicine. In 1990 then-department chairman John Stobo called for the creation of a task force on women's academic careers in medicine. The goal was to identify the career obstacles faced by the department's women faculty and recommend and implement ways to remove the barriers of the so-called "glass ceiling." He asked Linda Fried, a geriatrician specializing in preventive health care for older adults, to spearhead the project.

The results of that group's first five years of study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last week, indicate that the department's efforts have been paying off.

"Many of the women who have been retained and promoted to associate professor since the task force began its study would have left the university had these interventions not been put in place," Fried said. "Including me."

The task force did not begin its work in a vacuum. "I sat on the department's promotions committee for several years before the task force," she said, "and we observed disparities in the way women's careers seemed to evolve and in the way promotions were being handled, compared to men."

The task force got busy, meeting in half-day sessions every other week for six months, analyzing their own careers to see where the generic experiences were and which seemed to be gender-based.

"Then, being scientists, we developed hypotheses and then did structured interviews with other women faculty and trainees to see if there appeared to be support for the hypotheses," Fried said.

That research yielded a wide range of case histories. And on that basis, Fried and colleagues wrote a report to Stobo and the department with a long series of recommendations. She also developed a questionnaire which was sent to the faculty, based on what the task force had learned, as a way to test aspects of the hypotheses that could be tested. Fried then analyzed the results, a small segment of which appears in the JAMA article.

The study identified five career obstacles for women: fewer nominations for promotions; fewer mentors who actively fostered their career; women faculty were less likely to be sought out for collaborative research; had less access to resources, recognition and comparable salaries; and fewer chances to participate in informal institutional networks and decision making.

"I know the problems that we have experienced and the obstacles women have experienced in their careers are not unique to Hopkins," Fried says. "I'd be surprised if there was any medical institution that did not have these same issues."

The difference, she said, is that the department chose to take a critical look at itself and make changes during the past several years, ranging from correcting salary inequities, to rescheduling Grand Rounds, the all-important arena for presenting interesting cases to colleagues. It had been held on Saturday mornings for 100 years. Acting on task force recommendations, Grand Rounds are now held on Friday mornings.

"Women with children at home need to be with their families on weekends and they have obligations pulling them in both directions," Fried said. "Men in two career families have similar needs."

In fact, one of the more interesting outcomes of the research--which initially targeted women--has been that men, too, appeared to benefit from the interventions. The survey showed that there was a 29 percent increase in the proportion of men who expected to get promoted and a 42 percent decline in the proportion of men considering leaving academic medicine. Those numbers compare with a 66 percent increase in the proportion of women who expected to be promoted and a 63 percent decline in the number of women considering leaving academic medicine.

This shift in attitude is evident in the numbers: there were 30 women faculty in the Department of Medicine in 1990, the year the project began. Five years later, the number had increased to 65. In 1990, there were four women who were associate professors, considered a senior level at the School of Medicine; there had been no change in the number of women associate professors for the preceding 10 years, Fried notes. By 1995, there were 26. Women in the department perceive these changes to have resulted from the intervention.

The report notes that 86 percent of the women surveyed reported that gender bias had decreased in the department. From two-thirds to one-half of all female faculty reported improvements in issues such as timeliness of promotions, access to information needed for faculty development and salary equity.

While the glass has been chipped away on the ceiling hanging over women's careers, there are still some shards left to remove.

For example, Fried said, there is a perception among women faculty that there has been a disparity in resource allocation based on gender, which hadn't been originally considered or addressed. And although she said it has been gratifying to see the promotions to associate professor rise more than 500 percent- -with no changes in promotion criteria--this still needs to be translated into long-standing changes, including promotion of women to professor and more women in leadership roles.

"That's the next step. There's still some glass left. There has been unprecedented success in this effort. It is not complete, but the changes are being carried on by the new [Department of Medicine] chair, Ed Benz."

"This has been a continuous process, which has been handled very constructively," Fried said. "I think I and every other woman in the department who's been around for more than five years have experienced the profound change in the climate, which has been very positive, and has affected the success of our careers and our happiness at being at Hopkins," Fried said.

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