Fostering a Supportive Environment for Women in Medicine

From gender equity to career advancement, Department of Medicine programs help to address challenges unique to women in medicine

The headlines are positive. In 2019, data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) showed that for the first time, the majority of U.S. medical students are women. The same report indicates women as a percentage of the physician workforce continued to rise since 2007.

While these new trends are promising, they don’t solve the unique challenges traditionally faced by women in medicine during their careers. Issues of gender equity, balancing family and work responsibilities, and career advancement barriers can disproportionately affect women. To address these challenges, the Department of Medicine has created programs that recognize and address many of the barriers women face throughout their medical careers.

Dedicated programs for women in medicine

In 2014, at an informal gathering convened at the home of Department of Medicine Chair Victoria Fraser, MD, a group of trainees shared their experiences as women in medical training programs. Realizing that a more formal structure would be helpful to provide resources for these women, the Forum for Women in Medicine (FWIM) was soon created. Rakhee K. Bhayani, MD, an associate professor of medicine, has served as the Forum’s director since the beginning, actively involved in organizing workshops, lectures, networking events, etc. to support the professional and personal development of trainees within the department.

A FWIM event in September, 2015 brought together faculty and trainees to share career experiences.

Although initially geared specifically to residents and fellows, FWIM recognized the value of including faculty in its programming. “We noticed that trainees really enjoyed meeting women at all stages of their careers across multiple specialties,” recalls Bhayani. “And faculty enjoyed these opportunities to interact, share their experiences and build community as well. We never consciously established a formal mentoring program with FWIM. It was just organic and happened naturally as FWIM grew along the way. Today, FWIM purposefully works to make sure that there is bi-directional mentoring across all our efforts.”

Rakhee Bhayani, MD, associate professor of medicine and director Forum for Women in Medicine, at the 2019 inaugural Women Leading in Medicine and Science Symposium.

Over the years, FWIM has collaborated with other School of Medicine organizations that share similar goals of supporting women in medicine including the medical student-run branch of the American Medical Women’s Association and the Academic Women’s Network (AWN). In 2019, Bhayani helped to organize the inaugural Women Leading in Medicine and Science Symposium at the School of Medicine along with several other departments.

Since its inception, FWIM made a conscious effort to survey members and adjust programmatic goals accordingly. When they noticed they weren’t attracting a lot of fellows at FWIM events, they created a special outreach subcommittee, surveyed participants, and developed a series of interdivisional luncheons to help fellows connect across specialties.

Focus on equitable career advancement

To address the professional needs of women within the department, a newer program, Advancing Women in Academic Medicine (AWAM), was created to more actively identify and provide guidance to fellows and faculty on career advancement. Developed from Fraser’s initial vision, AWAM works to promote internal equitable career advancement and leadership opportunities for female faculty on institutional, local, national and international levels with the intent of achieving representation, professional rank, and compensation equal to that of their male counterparts.

Sharon Cresci, MD, associate professor of medicine in the Cardiovascular Division and associate professor of genetics, and Hilary Babcock, MD, MPH, professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases, are leading AWAM’s efforts as co-directors of the program. Guided by an advisory board of diverse leaders, AWAM works closely with FWIM and the Department of Medicine’s Office of Inclusion and Diversity.

Sharon Cresci, MD (left) and Hilary Babcock, MD, MPH (right) serve as co-directors for Advancing Women in Academic Medicine.

“By focusing on equitable career development plans and strategies, AWAM will help to accelerate the careers of women in faculty positions across all tracks in the Department of Medicine,” details Fraser. “Women face unique career challenges in medicine and we need to respond to that. Both Drs. Cresci and Babcock are tremendous leaders and are ideally suited to lead this effort.”

COVID presents new challenges and pivots programming

When COVID hit in March 2020, both FWIM and AWAM had to adapt their plans. With in-person events not possible, FWIM went online to serve their members. Bhayani recalls, “We immediately did a Zoom program on mindfulness followed by more programming that helped our members adjust to this new remote world.” Additional events followed including sessions for trainees on virtual interviewing and contract negotiations.

By continually evaluating and collecting member feedback, FWIM developed a new initiative during the pandemic to respond to member needs called the Department of Medicine Moms and Caregivers, a forum aimed at fostering community among trainees and faculty at any stage of family life. Their inaugural event held via Zoom was focused on the impact of COVID-19 on children and school. Other DOM Moms and Caregiver events have included speakers and topics related to resources for families.

FWIM’s first DOM Moms and Caregivers event

AWAM’s efforts were just beginning when COVID forced School of Medicine events to go virtual. Cresci and Babcock worked quickly to develop a presence on the Department of Medicine’s website, adding content and resources relevant to career advancement for women. They also quickly pivoted to implement a series of virtual listening sessions with faculty at all levels to elicit feedback about what support is most needed relating to career advancement. For AWAM, these listening sessions have led to several priorities, including developing a department statement of institutional values and work to standardize the faculty evaluation template. “We learned a lot from the listening sessions,” reflects Babcock. “So many women expressed that they didn’t know if certain activities had value in terms of promotion, they didn’t know what would help their career.”

AWAM held a series of listening sessions via Zoom.

Cresci agrees. “These sessions made us realize that it was important to explicitly and transparently highlight what activities are valued for promotion across divisions in the Department of Medicine, and to create a uniform faculty evaluation form that reflected the value of these activities. Our website will share examples of how women in the department have achieved success in their own individual pathways and will also promote information about internal and external award opportunities.”

Looking to the Future

The influence of these programs has broad impact. Medicine resident Preet Shaikh, MB, BS, was so inspired by her involvement in FWIM that she developed “Journeys in Medicine: Narratives with Women Faculty”, a project featuring residents and one-one-one interviews with their faculty role models. For Shaikh, “This project means so much to me because it’s critical for trainees in medicine to see how women before us have achieved their goals. We need to see people like us, around us. By sharing these incredible stories, we dispel any artificial barriers and are empowered to see that there are various paths to a successful medical career for a woman.” The project is currently active and features the interviews on FWIM’s website.

Today Bhayani is working to share the FWIM concept beyond the School of Medicine. She is currently working with medical students on developing a prospective piece focused on FWIM’s model and how others can adapt it to their own institutions.

In the future, Bhayani is hopeful about doing events in person again. “FWIM adapted and even expanded our programming during COVID,” reflects Bhayani. “Nevertheless, I look forward to when we can do our community building face-to-face.”

Cresci and Babcock also look forward to future expansion of AWAM with more clarity about career promotion and resources. Cresci believes the information and support provided by AWAM will lead to more rapid advancement and equity for women in the department. “We want to support the mission of the Department of Medicine by creating a supportive environment where all can reach their greatest potential.”