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Deeply entrenched gender bias in academic medicine is treatable

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Giving women a start on university science faculties

Patricia Devine et al. in a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology tested the effect of one 2.5-hour workshop that sought to positively influence the mental habit of gender bias, which exists in our academic world (and elsewhere) in both men and women.

Dr. Bevra H. Hahn
Dr. Bevra H. Hahn
Faculty in STEMM programs (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, Medical fields) at the University of Wisconsin were divided into intervention vs. control groups. The intervention was one workshop that emphasized identification of unintentional gender bias and strategies to combat it (including stereotype replacement, counter stereotype imaging, individuation, perspective taking, and increasing opportunities for intergroup interactions). Over the subsequent 2 years, hiring of women increased in the intervention group, compared with the control (odds ratio, 2.23). However, since women faculty left at a higher rate than did men during the same period, the gender distribution within these STEMM departments did not change. It seems that this one-time short workshop altered behavior to allow more highly educated women to get a first faculty position at a prominent university. This is a good start, but does not address the problem of women getting to the top on the faculty. At least 50% of graduating PhD’s in the United States are women, but women continue to be underrepresented among tenured faculty, full professors, department chairs, and deans – particularly in STEMM fields. This is a mirror of our society in general. We have a long way to go, but to at least enter the door before it starts to revolve is an important step forward.

Bevra H. Hahn, MD, is Distinguished Professor of Medicine (emeritus) at the University of California, Los Angeles.



TAMPA, FLA. – Gender bias that disadvantages women from rising in academic medicine might require specific habit-changing strategies rather than efforts that draw on goodwill alone, according to new follow-up data from a randomized trial discussed and reevaluated at the annual meeting of the American College of Psychiatrists.

One premise of this trial, supported by other research, is that entrenched gender stereotypes drive both male and female behavior and must be addressed directly for change, said Molly Carnes, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The initial results of the trial, which randomized academic departments at the University of Wisconsin to participate in habit-changing workshops or to serve as controls, were published almost 3 years ago (Acad Med. 2015 Feb;90[2]:221-30). It is the most recent follow-up (Devine et al. J Exp Soc Psychol. 2017 Nov;73:211-5) that corroborates that long-term changes are possible with intervention.

The published findings showed that when 1,137 faculty members from 46 departments in the experimental arm were compared with 1,153 faculty members from 46 departments in the control arm, there were significant improvements in the experimental arm in surveyed attitudes reflecting personal bias awareness (P = .001) and willingness to support gender equity (P = .013).

These changes in attitude translated into concrete changes in new female faculty hires in the most recent analysis. From 32% in a 2-year period before the workshops, the new female hires climbed to 46% in the 2-year period after the workshops – a relative increase of 44% in the departments participating in the experimental arm. In the control departments, female new faculty hires remained at 32% in both time periods.

“Basically, there are 20 new women faculty members at the University of Wisconsin because of this study,” Dr. Carnes said.

The training was not designed to change just male faculty perceptions but perceptions of both males and females. The result was a fundamental change in culture within departments randomized to the experimental arm, according to data generated by a variety of study analyses.

“When we looked at questions about department climate, we found that both male and female faculty members in the experimental groups were significantly more likely to say they fit in their department, they felt respected for their research and scholarship by their colleagues, and they felt comfortable raising personal and family issues even if they conflicted with departmental activities,” Dr. Carnes said.

This general attitude change is important, because Dr. Carnes emphasized that women share the cultural biases that can result in reduced female career opportunities in clinical and academic medicine. In addition, women generally are aware that stereotypical positive “agentic” adjectives for men, such as decisive, competitive, and ambitious, often are viewed negatively and generate backlash when applied to women. They therefore act on this awareness.

“Stereotype-based bias is a habit that can be broken, but it requires more than good intentions,” said Dr. Carnes, who emphasized that “gender-based assumptions and stereotypes are deeply embedded in the patterns of thinking of both men and women.”

As one example, Dr. Carnes cited her work evaluating female resident behavior when leading in-hospital code resuscitations. There are data to show that there is no difference in the effectiveness of male and female resident code leaders, but women typically feel that the assertive, aggressive behavior required for code leadership is “counternormative.” After the code, some women feel compelled to apologize to team members for being demanding or assertive, a step that Dr. Carnes attributed at least in part to fear of backlash from stepping out of gender-expected behavior.

The fix is not necessarily suppression of gender-related attributes. Dr. Carnes cited evidence that the stereotypical positive communal adjectives for women, such as nurturing, supportive, and sympathetic, might explain why studies suggest that women are more likely than men to be transformational leaders who inspire team members to contribute beyond their own self-interest in achieving goals.

Ultimately, the fix is replacement of stereotypes that impair men as well as women from defusing biases that “lead to subtle unintentional advantages in academic career advancement for Jack not afforded to Jill,” Dr. Carnes said. Based on the low numbers of female leaders in academic medicine decades after medical schools began enrolling women in substantial numbers, she concluded that meaningful change in gender bias is not likely to occur without implementation of specific proactive strategies aimed at challenging current perceptions. Her published study confirms that such strategies can help.

Dr. Carnes reported no conflicts of interest.

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