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May 2011

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Spirit Lecturer advocates diversity in academic medicine

By Erin D. Hopper
May 2011

A woman standing at a podium speaks to an audience

Andrews shared a number of relevant anecdotes from her highly successful academic career. She pointed to women's success despite thoroughly ingrained gender roles, which tend to impede women's progress in academic medicine. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Three women and a man smile and line up for a photo

Shown, left to right, Molly Vallant, chair of the Spirit Lecture Committee, joined Andrews, holding the Spirit sculpture, NIEHS Diversity Council Chair Brad Collins, and NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., who introduced the speaker. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Three women having a conversation

During the post-lecture reception, Veronica Godfrey Robinson, left, engaged Beth Anderson, center, and Andrews in an animated conversation about persistent inequities between men and women in academic medicine. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

A diverse group of 10 women and one man lined up for a photo

The Spirit Lecture Committee celebrated another uplifting event in the ten-year series of talks by distinguished scientific women. Pictured left-to-right are Suramya Waidyanatha, Ph.D., Birnbaum, Angela King-Herbert, D.V.M.,Vallant, Robinson, Andrews, Collins, Diane Spencer, Marsha Johnston, and Grace Kissling, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

In recognition of Women's History Month, Duke University School of Medicine Dean Nancy C. Andrews, M.D., Ph.D., visited NIEHS March 29 to deliver the 2011 Spirit Lecture. The Spirit Lecture is an annual NIEHS event that honors women who have made significant contributions to their field while maintaining a rich and meaningful personal life. In her talk, "Reflections on the Glass Ceiling," Andrews chronicled her experiences and observations as a female scientist who has forged a path to the top of the academic career ladder.

Climbing the career ladder

In 2007, Andrews made headlines when she became vice chancellor for academic affairs and dean of the Duke University School of Medicine. Upon accepting this position, she became the first female dean of medicine at Duke and the first and only female dean of a top-ten medical school. By excelling at all levels of the academic career ladder, Andrews has challenged traditional gender roles and inspired other women to do the same.

Andrews carefully outlined the state of women in academics, noting that less than 30 percent of associate professors and less than 20 percent of full professors are women. In reference to the seriousness of the situation, Andrews quoted Professor Timothy Ley, M.D., of Washington University, who calls the scarcity of women in academia the "global warming" of academic medicine.

Several alarming trends threaten diversity in academic medicine. While the number of women entering the medical field is increasing, very few are filling positions in academia. Only half as many females as males apply for first-time research (R series) grants, and even more concerning, only one third as many females as males apply for subsequent R series grants. This trend occurs despite the fact that women are equally as successful as men at obtaining these grants.

Opting for a different path

Why do women veer off the academic career path? Andrews explained that a significant driving force for this trend is that women receive a multitude of signals alluding to the difficulty of combining a successful academic career with a happy family life. Andrews feels that the myth is greater than the reality in this case, but, nevertheless, these signals seem to contribute to women's career decisions.

Andrews also addressed the unfortunate reality that women must "supercompete" with men to advance in academic medicine; that is, women must outperform their male counterparts to be considered as academic equals. Andrews addressed this issue honestly and directly, saying, "I think it's still true that the playing field of academic medicine tilts against women, has potholes and maybe even landmines for women, and has too few referees to keep the game fair."

In a final offer of explanation, Andrews noted that women in the medical field lack role models who are capable of demonstrating what is possible for women in academic science. When faced with the difficulty of navigating the academic career path without role models to lead the way, many women seem to be opting out of academia, deciding that other careers may be more rewarding or less risky.

The lecture concluded with a tone of hope, as Andrews noted that the climate for women in science may be slowly improving, and she made several suggestions for further improving the climate. She advocated the establishment of a new academic culture that favors a positive work/life balance, and endorsed the replacement of leaders with poor track records of equity. "Brilliance and ability are not restricted to certain groups," Andrews asserted, adding, "We need to communicate the message that diversity is not only the right way to do business, but also the most successful way to do business."

(Erin D. Hopper, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Structural Biology Mass Spectrometry Group.) 

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