Conference Coverage

Breaking the glass ceiling: Women in pulmonary medicine face both barriers and opportunities



– Women in medicine have made great strides in cracking the glass ceiling, but it’s not shattered yet, said Stephanie M. Levine, MD, FCCP, the incoming president of CHEST.

Dr.Stephanie Levine, professor of medicine and director of the pulmonary/critical care fellowship program at the University of Texas, San Antonio

Dr. Stephanie Levine

At a session on women in medicine at the annual meeting of the American College of Chest Physicians, Dr. Levine discussed the challenges of breaking through the metaphorical invisible barrier. The “glass ceiling” refers to multiple ways in which women lack equality with men in medicine: leadership roles, positions and titles, progress in academic medicine, gaps in salaries and compensation, and overall gender parity in specialties.

For example, according to data from the American Association of Medical Colleges for 2017-2018, women comprise 50% of medical school graduates but only 34% of the physician workforce and 22% of leadership roles. Women are 13% less likely to be promoted to professor. They receive salaries an average 21% lower than those of their male peers, said Dr. Levine, professor of medicine and director of the pulmonary/critical care fellowship program at the University of Texas, San Antonio.

Disparities exist particularly within specialties and subspecialties, she said. Women make 85% of what men earn in primary care but, in the specialties, only 75% of what men earn. Among active fellow trainees in the areas of medicine most represented by CHEST, one-third (32%) of critical care physicians and less than a third (29%) of pulmonary physicians are female.

Why the lag in specialty parity?

The reasons for these disparities are complex, Dr. Levine argued, but the problem is not insurmountable. They begin, in a sense, with the problem itself: When there are fewer mentors, role models, sponsors, and leaders, and less overall representation of women in the first place, it is harder for women to advance.

One male audience member, for example, asked how his department could recruit more women, because most turned down interviews despite the fact that more women than men were being invited. “How many women are in your leadership?” Dr. Levine asked. He acknowledged that there were none – and therein lies the likely problem. Applicants are looking for female representation in leadership.

Gender bias and discrimination certainly play a role among peers, leadership, and even patients. Patients referring to female physicians by their first names and asking questions such as “Are you my nurse?” are subtle but cutting examples of the ways in which they reveal implicit bias and reinforce gender stereotypes, Dr. Levine said to weary nods of agreement among the attendees.

Implicit, unconscious bias is also built into the culture of a place and the way things have always been done. Lack of equity in salary, space to work, support, and promotion all compound one another. Work-life integration challenges often do not favor women. Studies have shown that in the hiring process, CVs with female names do not receive as much attention as do CVs with male names, Dr. Levine noted.

Some of the challenges lie with the way women themselves do or do not advocate for themselves. Research has long shown that women do not negotiate as well – or at all – compared with men. Women tend to be less aggressive in seeking higher compensation and leadership roles, possibly because of existing implicit bias against female assertiveness in general.

The catch-22 is that being more assertive or direct can lead others to interpret a woman as being rude or brusk, as one audience member noted when she described how colleagues perceive her simple, direct tone as seeming “upset.”

Conscious bias remains alive and well: The stereotypes that women are caretakers and men are take-charge dominators persist and can reinforce gender disparities in leadership roles.

Women also must make calculations and trade-offs between their academic promotion clocks and their biologic clocks, Dr. Levine explained.

“The 30s are great for both academic and biologic productivity,” she told attendees. The typical age for a person’s first National Institutes of Health Research Project grant (R01) is in the early 40s.

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