Perception is key to retaining women in academic medicine

by Ruth Schechter on 04/14/11 at 9:38 am

When it comes to seeking new opportunities in academic medicine, the grass really seems to be greener on the other side—for both men and women.

A team of Stanford University Medical Center researchers found that while male and female faculty members are leaving Stanford in comparable numbers based on the gender mix of the faculty, women are giving notice sooner than their male peers. But what was surprising was that the majority were moving to comparable institutions—not relocating to community clinics or pure research enterprises.

Professor Sherry Wren, MD, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs

Professor Sherry Wren, MD, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs

“We are losing talented physician scientists, and we wanted to see what factors we could address to encourage them to stay at Stanford. But it takes data to know what has to change, not speculation,” said Sherry Wren, MD a professor of surgery, associate dean of academic affairs, and a Clayman Institute faculty research fellow. “We thought that women were leaving academic medicine for traditional ‘female’ reasons, but that is simply not the case.”

The study mainly included tenure-line respondents and medical center line—those involved in teaching, research, and clinical care—which comprises slightly more than half of the School of Medicine faculty. About 42 percent of Stanford assistant professors are women, while about 22 percent are full professors.

Sabine Girod, MD, PhD, DDS, Associate Professor of Plastic Surgery

“We found that 68 percent of the respondents stayed in academic medicine,” said Sabine Girod, MD, PhD, DDS, an associate professor of plastic surgery, who designed the questionnaire. “We have this sense that women tend to leave more than men, but the data argues against that notion. The gender difference was insignificant.”


Overall, most of the people who left were assistant professors (women left after an average of five years to men’s seven).

What was especially significant, said Wren, was the perception among the female respondents of less support, which included mentoring, protected time for research, and flexibility to accommodate new interests. And all said their new institutions provided better opportunities in these areas.

“There was little way of formally protecting research time when first starting as a junior faculty,” read one response. “Most research was done on my own time, outside of the working hours,” read another. “No real time for anything but clinical work,” stated another.

The initial premise, the researchers say, was that the unique stress of academic medicine was particularly hard on women, but the bottom line was that there were no real gender differences in the reasons why faculty leave, though leadership issues were cited prominently by both genders. In other surveys comparing men and women in academic institutions, women reported feeling like they had less support than their male colleagues.

“We wanted to understand the motives of attrition, especially among women, with the goal of developing ways to improve faculty recruitment and retention,” said Wren. “Based on these perceptions, we need to provide better career mentoring, investigate the perception of support for female professors, and continue to address leadership development at the departmental and divisional level.”

The survey was sent out to all faculty who left between 1999 and 2009, and more than half responded to the questionnaire. While the sample is too small to warrant broad generalizations, Wren and Girod said the initial results can point to areas for improvement in recruiting and retaining promising faculty. The team plans to develop more criteria for analysis and is initiating discussions to expand the survey throughout the university and to other medical schools.

rception is key to retaining women in academic medicine

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One Response to “Perception is key to retaining women in academic medicine”

  1. Nadine

    Apr 21st, 2011

    This article tiptoes around the central issue why women leave Stanford Medicine–the school still carries vestiges of an old boys club. Let’s face it old habits die hard at Stanford. The only way Stanford Medicine will change is to change its administrative policies and the people who set them to reflect the dynamic changes in medicine.

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