Your Health

Five things I wish I’d known as a woman entering academic medicine

Understanding the intangible realities of academic work culture.

By Karen E. A. Burns

This is an excerpt from an article entitled Ten Things That I Wish I Would Have Known as a Woman Entering Academic Medicine, first published in the BMJ Opinion medical journal on July 29, 2019. Read the complete story here.

Although the number of women entering medicine has increased over the past five decades, progress in gender parity lags behind, with few women in prestigious positions or leadership roles. Recent studies have shed light on the perceived drivers and implications, personal and professional, of gender inequity in medicine and the need for strategies to address these inequities.

At present, women have few resources to help them navigate academic medicine. Although experience is a great teacher, it is an inefficient and challenging way for female academics to understand the intangible realities of academic work culture. Through personal reflection, I compiled a list of things that I wish I had known earlier in my academic career with insights on how I would respond to them today. 

Being a woman is an impediment to career development in academic medicine. Accept that work culture will change slowly, but may not change during your career. Work to ensure that circumstances will be different in the future. 

You may have to work harder for the same (or less) recognition. Even though you might be acknowledged as an expert nationally and internationally, that may not be recognized locally. Trust that your expertise will eventually be known through your scholarly contributions and reputation as a scientist. 

It’s important to find time to write. Manage your own calendar. Protect your time. Find magnanimous ways to say “no” to opportunities that will distract from your personal goals and career aspirations. Find a quiet place, away from distractions, to “get lost” in your writing. Be productive.  

Some individuals may doubt your knowledge, expertise and ability simply because you are female. Acknowledge that you may not be considered equal to male colleagues. Individuals may assume that you are not a physician simply because you are a woman. Educate others that doctors look like you. Be proud of who you are and what you have endured to be in your current position. Share your personal stories!

It is much easier for individuals in leadership positions to lend verbal support to matters of equity, diversity, and inclusion than it is to take action to address imbalances. Recognize that some individuals benefit from maintaining the status quo. Advocate for change. Be guided by your moral compass. 

Visible and invisible features of organizational culture affect women and men differently and contribute, in part, to differences in their academic experiences.  Although progress has been made, there is still a great deal of work to be done to address inequities and their consequences. While we advocate for change and await strategies to improve the experiences and outcomes of women in academic medicine, we can share our experiences, reflections, and coping strategies.