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Vol. LXVI, No. 17
August 15, 2014
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Leaders Point Way to Advancing Women In Biomedical Careers

Dr. Ann Bonham of the American Association of Medical Colleges (l), ORWH director Dr. Janine Clayton (c) and Dr. Judith Greenberg of NIGMS discuss the bias and barriers facing women in biomedical careers. Co-chairs Dr. Wiley “Chip” Souba of Dartmouth and Susan Siegel of General Electric review actions that can be taken to address the situation.

At left, Dr. Ann Bonham of the American Association of Medical Colleges (l), ORWH director Dr. Janine Clayton (c) and Dr. Judith Greenberg of NIGMS discuss the bias and barriers facing women in biomedical careers. At right, co-chairs Dr. Wiley “Chip” Souba of Dartmouth and Susan Siegel of General Electric review actions that can be taken to address the situation.

Photos: Rosemarie Filart

What factors prevent women from climbing up the career ladder in science and medicine? What interventions can help women close the gender gap in career advancement? Participants at a recent workshop on the advancement of women in biomedical careers tackled these issues and came up with a varied menu of approaches and interventions.

The workshop was at least 7 years in the making. Prompted by the 2007 National Academies report, “Beyond Bias and Barriers, Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering,” NIH established the working group on women in biomedical careers that resulted in the support of 14 research projects on causal factors and interventions to promote careers of women in biomedical science. The investigators studied a range of obstacles facing women at all stages of the scientific pipeline and piloted steps toward solutions.

The working group, chaired by NIH director Dr. Francis Collins and Dr. Janine Clayton, director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health, and its committee on research and evidence, chaired by NIGMS deputy director Dr. Judith Greenberg, recognized the growing body of literature from these and other projects. They sponsored the recent workshop, convening a small group of prominent leaders from medical and graduate schools, the private sector and professional societies and associations to identify workable strategies to improve the recruitment, retention, reentry and advancement of women in the biomedical sciences.

Collins kicked off the event by calling on participants to “take action” in academia, private sectors and communities. He asserted that “NIH cannot support a culture that discriminates against women.”

Workshop co-chair Susan Siegel of General Electric reported that “80 percent of the health care labor force is women, yet only 19 percent of hospital CEOs are women.” She described steps GE has taken to advance women’s careers, including workforce development programs that encourage the culture of learning and growth values. As a strategy to overcome the “gender-gap hurdle,” co-chair Dr. Wiley Souba of Dartmouth emphasized the importance of leadership support and “modeling the way” for faculty.

In a keynote presentation, Dr. Ann Bonham of the American Association of Medical Colleges stressed the value of mentors, coaches and sponsors in moving women into leadership positions. In another keynote presentation, Dr. Liza Carriaga-Lo of Brown University described the need for “breaking the cycle of the disadvantaged, promoting dignity and worth, achieving structural change and facilitating society’s full participation.” Discussants included Dr. Regina Benjamin, former U.S. surgeon general, along with other prominent leaders.

For women of color, “fitting into” an academic culture can be especially problematic, noted Morehouse School of Medicine’s Dr. Sandra Harris-Hooker. Key pressure points include enabling work-life balance and offering proactive leadership support. Yet, one-size-fits-all solutions are not likely to be effective, noted Dr. Hannah Valantine, NIH’s chief officer for scientific workforce diversity. Moreover, she urged, leadership must recognize the importance of the value of gender and other forms of diversity. “Institutional goodwill goes a long way,” she added.


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