Empowering Women in Academic Medicine

Published in Aequanimitas - Fall 2018 Aequanimitas

In response to a significant, one-time drop in the number of women residents who matched at Johns Hopkins in 2016—from about 50 percent to just 20 percent—the Osler Medical Residency Program has undergone a transformation.

Heather Sateia, named as a new associate residency program director, has championed more diversity and strategies to improve the program’s culture. She’s working closely with Gail Berkenblit (Osler, 1998), director of ambulatory medical education and associate residency program director.

Together, the two physicians have been taking a more targeted approach to recruiting and retaining female Osler trainees. They provide warm welcomes on interview days, send personal emails before and after interviews, and make sure trainees who express an interest in a specialty are put in touch with a female physician in that field.

The school of medicine is doing its part: New benefits include more time off for birth recovery and parental leave (12 weeks and four weeks, respectively), as well as increased financial coverage for infertility treatments.

The Task Force on Women’s Academic Careers in Medicine has strengthened critical support for women in academia by providing more networking, mentorship and sponsorship opportunities, in addition to CV review and job negotiation workshops. Rachel Levine chairs the task force, which identifies career obstacles and provides guidance on gender equity around salary, promotion rates, leadership appointments and family-friendly work practices in the Department of Medicine.

Drawing from residents’ feedback, says Sateia, the residency program has offered more opportunities for residents to find mentors through events that highlight female role models. “People have loved that,” she says.

At a recent event, Redonda Miller (Osler, 1992), president of The Johns Hopkins Hospital and mother of two daughters, offered suggestions for women who want to pursue leadership roles. “Let others know about your career aspirations,” Miller said. “And, when opportunities arise, be sure to say yes to new projects and apply for new positions. Push yourself past your comfort zone and toward your goals.”

These initiatives may have contributed to a historic change: On Match Day 2018, 62 percent of the residents who matched in the Osler Residency Program were women. And, over the past several years, more than a dozen residents have started families.

“I’m heartened by this progress,” says Berkenblit. During her residency, only 30 percent of trainees were women. She waited until after her residency to have a child—a daughter, now 11.

Things were harder for Levine. In 2003, after an internal medicine residency at Boston University Medical Center, she began a fellowship in general internal medicine at Johns Hopkins, with a focus on medical education. Levine married the following year and had her first child in 2005. She was among only a few women in the program to have given birth during training.

She sought out role models who could tell her how to manage new demands on her time, but found very few, and almost no female doctors were working part time in academic settings at that time.

Some 15 years later, Levine, who has since had two more children, is making sure other women get the support and mentoring she craved, as she leads the task force. Levine, who is also associate vice dean for faculty educational development and the Department of Medicine’s associate vice chair for women’s academic careers, is applauding and supporting the latest strategies created by residency program leaders to attract and retain more women physicians.

After the 2016 precipitous drop, Berkenblit and Sateia met often to build interest during recruitment. “We worked hard to reach out to applicants before they came, to make a personal connection,” says Sateia, mother of three children under the age of 7. And, to improve the odds for retention, Sateia collaborated with an organizational psychology expert at the Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business to better understand the culture within the program and identify opportunities for innovation.

Nevertheless, says Levine, barriers persist, “and they can be subtle and unconscious.” Many women report situations where they’re not being heard, she explains: “You might be the only one making a certain comment, and no one says anything until a few minutes later, when a man says basically the same thing and is acknowledged.”

Levine adds that women seated under boardroom portraits of white men may feel intimidated. “You might not feel like you belong there,” she says. “It’s many times worse for women of color.”

That said, Berkenblit points out that the women’s task force was among the first of its kind in the nation and has been championed by Mark Anderson, director of the Department of Medicine.

She also credits Osler residency program director Sanjay Desai with promoting a work-life balance for both women and men. “Sanjay has spent a lot of time looking at rotations and how duty hours align with family and personal time,” says Berkenblit. “We are still a very rigorous program, but there’s more openness to change.”

The most pleasant surprise amid all these efforts? “The degree of engagement of all members of the program, regardless of whether they are men or women, single or married, with kids or without,” says Sateia. In the end, she observes, this strategy “is really about providing support to help people lead healthy lives and ensure that the program is what every trainee wants it to be—and helps them find joy.”