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Dean receives NIH grant to address lack of women in medical academia

A dean at the Stanford School of Medicine has received a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to research why few women attain professorships in medicine.

Hannah Valantine, professor and senior associate dean for diversity and leadership in the School of Medicine, was awarded the NIH grant to conduct a study exploring the causes and possible solutions for the low numbers of women becoming full professors.

Women represent 50 percent of graduates from medical schools and about 45 percent of assistant professors in the field of academic medicine. But only 18 percent of full professors are women.

“I’ve addressed many of the structural issues that limit the advancement of women in academic careers, including issues around work-life balance and the collision of the biological time clock with the academic time clock,” Valantine said. “But recently my attention and interest have begun to be focused on the psychological factors that come into play.”

The $2 million grant, one of six NIH Director’s Pathfinder Awards bestowed this August, aims to promote diversity in the scientific workforce. It will enable Valantine and her team to conduct a variety of experiments over the course of three years, focusing especially on the phenomenon known as the “stereotype threat”–a concept pioneered by Claude Steele, a former Stanford professor–and how it affects women faculty in the medical field.

Steele’s studies have shown that if a person is reminded of a negative stereotype associated with a group they belong to before performing a task, their ability to succeed at the task decreases.

“Very specific pathways in the brain are activated as a consequence of this feeling of fear, of succumbing to this negative stereotype associated with your identity group,” Valantine said. “The anxiety areas of the brain are activated, and the areas that are responsible for spatial cognitive function are diminished, so that the performance actually comes out worse.”

The goal of Valantine’s study is to identify the situations that may trigger this stereotype threat in women faculty, and then to design interventions to address them. Co-investigator and pediatrics professor Christy Sandborg expects one of the triggers is a sense of isolation.

“You see the majority of men in leadership, and you say, ‘Well, I don’t belong here,’” she said. “And if it’s hard, you’re thinking you’re not succeeding because you don’t belong.”

A possible intervention to address this insecurity, she said, would be to invite members in leadership positions from different backgrounds to speak to assistant professors about the hardships they too encountered while building their careers.

“It normalizes that feeling of isolation and not belonging,” Sandborg said, “and says that it’s not because you’re a woman or a man or anything, it’s just because everybody feels that way.”

The results of the study will appear in three stages: the first based on qualitative data from the test subjects such as questionnaires and diary entries; the second on more long-term effects, such as the number of grants received and number of promotions to leadership positions; and the third on any change in retention rates over next five years of women faculty in medical academia.

Valantine’s immediate team includes eight people from many different departments.

“We’re taking a multidisciplinary approach to the issue that requires psychologists, sociologists, psychiatrists, neuro-imaging specialists, epidemiologists and people who are skilled at programming for career and faculty development,” she said.

The team epidemiologist and medicine professor, Marilyn Winkleby, believes it is important to discover the root causes of this loss of women in medicine.

“It’s especially concerning at the academic research institutions like Stanford and the Ivy Leagues, because, in essence, you’re losing some of the brightest and most talented women,” she said. “And if the U.S. is really going to maintain its competitiveness in science and medicine, you need these women.”

Above all, Sandborg says, the study is intended to enact real change within professorial ranks.

“I hope that we actually will be able to design relatively straightforward interventions that we then can deploy pretty easily to actually improve the way things are,” Sandborg said. “We’re going to use this, if it works.”

Contact Willa Brock at wbrock@stanford.edu.

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