For nearly four decades, the number of women attending medical school has increased to the extent that today women represent nearly half of all new physicians. This strong presence, however, is not reflected among the professionals who teach young physicians: Despite efforts to increase equity, the proportion of women at the rank of full professor at U.S. medical schools has not changed since 1980.
According to a study published in the September 15 issue of JAMA, women were nearly 13 percent less likely to be full professors than male peers of identical age, experience, and research productivity. The analysis was led by Anupam Jena, an HMS associate professor of health care policy and a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Jena says the persistent gap between male and female promotions is sometimes explained by saying that women are promoted less often because they interrupt their careers during childbearing years, choose specialties that offer fewer opportunities for promotion, or are less productive because, on average, they make work-life choices that differ from those of men.
It is also speculated that the pre-existing shortage of senior women faculty members may make it hard for young women trainees to find mentors. These and other factors, the thinking goes, might make women less productive than men, and therefore less likely to be promoted in a system that rewards research productivity.
When Jena and colleagues analyzed data from a commercial social networking service used by more than a million doctors and more than 90,000 U.S. medical school faculty members, they did find some significant differences in productivity. Women, for example, averaged fewer total publications than men and had fewer papers on which they were the first or last author. They were also less likely to have NIH grants or to have led large clinical trials.
Yet when the researchers compared the genders by age, experience, and research productivity, women were still less likely to be full professors. According to the researchers, this difference was present across all specialties and consistent across medical schools regardless of research funding ranking.
“If the goal is to achieve equity,” says Jena, “we need to work on closing that gap.”