Dr. Linda Fried

(WOMENSENEWS)–The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, one of the top medical institutions in the country, has launched an inquiry into gender discrimination on its medical faculty after an in-house review revealed that women have not been promoted to leadership and senior faculty positions.

Before reaching senior positions, faculty women are abandoning the School of Medicine for private practice or corporate careers, mirroring nationwide trends at other medical schools. At The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, women make up only 11 percent of the senior faculty–one point below the national average–and hold none of the 27 department chairs, according to the report by the medical school’s Women’s Leadership Council.

“I was frankly surprised to learn these statistics. It seemed to me that department directors had made a big effort to hire female faculty,” said Edward Miller, dean of the medical school, in a statement printed in the medical school’s newsletter.

“But numbers don’t lie,” he said.

Johns Hopkins has known since the early 1990s that its science “pipeline” leaks women. In an attempt to prove its dedication to change, the medical school opened its first on-site daycare facility in the fall of 2001. But a decade of patchwork has failed to stop the brain drain, leaving women clustered in the junior ranks and frustrated at the slow rate of change.

One-third of the medical school’s junior faculty are women, but “those numbers aren’t filtering up at the rate one would expect,” said Cynthia Wolberger, professor of biophysics and co-chair of the Women’s Leadership Council, which presented the report to Miller in January. Wolberger will co-chair a new committee that will collect data on the problem in a new effort to address the shortfall.

“Basically, nothing has changed,” said Dr. Georgia Vogelsang, an oncologist on the council who is one of the few women holding full professorships at the medical school. “Women aren’t advancing and are leaving in utter frustration with their inability to progress here.”

Piecemeal Solutions Results in Little Change

Women at Johns Hopkins say that the reason that after more than a decade of pushing for change, are women unable to move up the faculty ranks is that the piecemeal remedies of the 1990s failed to change the school’s male-dominated culture.

Though the senior faculty may no longer indulge in skirt-chasing and scandal, women at Hopkins face subtle, often unconscious forms of discrimination, from eye rolling when gender parity is brought up at meetings to low male attendance at forums on diversity.

The low numbers of women in senior positions proves that those little things add up, said Virginia Valian, author of the book “Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women.”

“Most people are sincerely meritocratic and egalitarian,” Valian said. “That makes it hard for them to appreciate the extent to which their judgments of themselves and others are based not just on individual accomplishments but on gender schemas–beliefs about the traits of men and women.”

‘You May Not See Women There Because Maybe They Choose That’

The faculties at other top institutions reflect the same discrepancies. At Yale, women made up only 14 percent of tenured faculty in 2000, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. The same report showed that women were 14 percent of the tenured faculty at Georgetown University, 16 percent at Stanford University, 10 percent at Harvard University and 10 percent at Tufts University.

“In a white male-dominated culture, which academia is and academic medicine certainly is, women tend to be undervalued in what they accomplish,” said Dr. Linda Fried, chair of the university-wide Committee on the Status of Women that oversees gender and equity in the Johns Hopkins University’s seven divisions, including the medical school.

Elizabeth Wagner, a professor of pulmonary medicine, acknowledges the problems her colleagues point out, but she also believes that women may be underrepresented at the top because they choose not to take on the added hours of senior administrative posts. “You may not see women there because maybe they choose that,” Wagner said.

Through the 1990s, the percentage of senior women faculty at the Johns Hopkins medical school rose just 5 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of women in U.S. medical schools rose from approximately 37 percent in 1991 to nearly 46 percent last year, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges.

“Women are getting half the M.D.s and half the Ph.D.s,” said Wolberger. “So that’s why one can comfortably ask at that point what happens to them after that.”

School Says It Wants to Correct Mistakes

Like any good scientist, Johns Hopkins is determined to learn from its mistakes. The new committee will collect data on promotions, salaries and other university resources as part of a university-wide strategy to standardize policies on search committees and maternity leave.

Suggestions for change include regular reviews of faculty to ensure that women are getting equal credit for equal work, the inclusion of women and parity issues in search committees and a regular review of departments that fail to recruit and retain women. “Without making a conscious decision to have more women in leadership positions, the institution will perpetuate itself,” Wolberger said.

“Most places have tended to rely on one-time changes,” added Janet Bickel, director of Women in Medicine for the Association of American Medical Colleges. But short-term fixes fail to change institutional culture, she said: “The inequities tend to creep back in.”

In addition, women often assume the bulk of responsibility for child care and other household tasks. It costs them “face time” at work and means that many women must sacrifice after-hours networking opportunities, compromising the esteem of their colleagues and superiors.

“There’s a subconscious bias that therefore the woman isn’t working as hard,” said Redonda Miller, an assistant professor of medicine who is thinking of having children but worried about the effects childrearing might have on her career.

Pressure to Publish Weighs on Faculty Moms

The tenure track demands the highest productivity during women’s childbearing years. But it was designed in the years when men far outnumbered the women entering academic medicine. The tenure track at Johns Hopkins does not enforce a strict “up or out” policy–a common policy whereby professors who fail to meet promotion criteria by a certain deadline are fired–allowing some flexibility.

Still, that flexibility comes at a price. A 1999 survey of fellows who chose to leave Johns Hopkins found that approximately 70 percent of women felt that pregnancy had a negative impact on their careers.

“The stress comes in thinking that you’re not going to make that advancement if you don’t make it in a certain number of years,” said Scherer Sanders, an associate professor of pulmonary medicine at Johns Hopkins. Sanders, a single mother in the early years of her career, took 10 years–nearly twice the norm–to advance from assistant to associate professor.

The school’s first maternity-leave policy, not yet implemented, allows the “primary caregiver” a minimum of eight weeks paid leave. Women who choose to take more time off or put in less time at work may have to take a cut in pay or spread grants over a longer time period.

“It would be wonderful I could wave a magic wand or issue an edict from the dean’s office and, presto! Half our division chiefs and full professors would be women. But faculty members aren’t hired or promoted by the dean,” Miller said in his statement. “What I can do is keep the importance of gender equity in front of their face.”

Asjylyn Loder is a freelance writer in New York City.

For more information:

A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT:

Association of American Medical Colleges
Women in Medicine:

Hopkins Medical News
“Poised for Power”: