Wanted: Women Faculty

About half of all medical school graduates are women. But women only make up about 30 percent of medical school faculty and even fewer make it into the top ranks of leadership. As Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports, medical institutions are starting to shift their approach and follow the lead of the corporate world in recruiting and retaining female leadership.

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The world of academia is not known for being especially kind to women. In decades past, the ratio of men to women in faculty positions generally reflected the ratio of men to women who were enrolled in medicine and science programs. But over the past 20 years or so, nearly as many women are graduating with medical and science degrees as men, but they still fall far behind when it comes to advancing through the ranks of faculty. Dr. Elizabeth Travis is a professor at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She says about 30 percent of the faculty at M.D. Anderson are women.

"We are a little bit behind in terms of the women and the proportion of the women on the faculty. But where there is disparity is in the number of women who are professors and the leadership, how many women department chairs, how many women are vice presidents etc?"

So the leadership at M.D. Anderson decided to take a different approach and follow the precedent set by the corporate sector. The first step was to appoint Dr. Travis to a newly created position, associate vice president for women faculty programs.

"I don't consider this a gender issue. I think this is a cultural issue because I think giving everybody equal opportunity just makes all of us better. But this is a cultural issue and not a gender issue. And why that is, it's been like that forever I think. But that doesn't mean it need be that way any longer."

Right now Travis is working on a mentoring program for faculty with specific sessions for women. And in the future, Travis plans to look at how the organization handles on-site child care, maternity leave and other gender-specific issues.

"If we just did nothing, things would change in the next four decades. But that's too long. So the goal is to accellerate that change. Because if you have 50 percent coming out of school eventually it's going to get better. But the eventually is not what we want, we want this to happen sooner. And so I think you have to look very carefully at your policies and procedures. We pride ourselves on being a caring institution for both our patients and our faculty and are there ways that we can be more attractive."

A gender and rank study by the American Association of Medical Colleges shows only four percent of full professors are women and women make up about ten percent of deans, department and division chairs. And Travis says if women are voluntarily opting out of these careers, then institutions need to ask what is it about academic medicine that isn't attractive to them and work on ways to address those issues. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...