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May 29, 2020

Dr. Pennell, Dr. Khosa and Dr. Marshall discuss the recent JCO OP publication, “Gender Differences in Faculty Rank and Leadership Positions Among Hematologists and Oncologists in the United States”


Welcome to the latest JCO Oncology Practice podcast, brought to you by the ASCO podcast network, a collection of nine programs covering a range of educational and scientific content, and offering enriching insight into the world of cancer care. You can find all recordings, including this one, at my name is Dr. Nate Pennell, Medical Oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic, and consultant editor for the JCOOP.


Today, I'd like to talk about sex disparities in academic oncology. Despite increasing attention in recent years, sex disparities in academic medicine clearly persist, and are most noticeable at the more senior and leadership positions within academic centers. While these disparities are well recognized, in general in medicine, what exactly is known about sex disparities in academic leadership in oncology specifically?


With me today to discuss this topic are Dr. Faisal Khosa, Associate Professor in the Department of Radiology at Vancouver General Hospital, at the University of British Columbia; and Dr. Ariela Marshall, Associate Professor of Medicine and hematologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. We'll be discussing their paper, "Sex Differences in Faculty Rank and Leadership Positions Among Hematologist and Oncologists in the United States," published online in the JCOOP in February 2020.


Welcome, Faisal and Ariela, and thank you for joining me on the podcast.


Thanks so much for the invitation. We're glad to be here.


So how big of a problem is sex disparities in academic medicine, in general?


I can speak to that a little bit, and then certainly Dr. Khosa also is a world leader in this area. So he can add on to what I have to say. So I think we well know that this is a problem across the board, regardless of specialty, regardless of whether we're talking about academic rank, or position on editorial boards, or any number of other leadership positions. So we see the huge drop-off between our current medical school population, which is actually over 50% female as of the last couple of years, but then a sharp drop-off over time when we get up the ladder to then in the associate and then the full professor level, as well as positions like being hospital CEO, department chairs, and any number of other leadership positions. And I'd certainly like to hear what Dr. Khosa has to say as well.


Nathan, thank you for inviting my participation on this very important topic. I would also like to add that I have no personal or institutional conflicts of interest with this publication that we are discussing, or this particular interview that is being recorded now. I would also like to thank Dr. Irbaz Bin Riaz from Department of Hematology Oncology at Mayo Clinic, who spearheaded this project successfully, and is also the first author on this manuscript.


Yeah. Thank you for clarifying that.


I agree with Ariela's comments. Women are underrepresented in high academic ranks and leadership positions, in spite of more than 50% matriculants from medical schools across North America, US, and Canada are now women. But they represent fewer than 20% of medical school deans and department chairs. Furthermore the American Association of Medical Colleges data reveals that female physicians make $0.76 for every dollar earned by their male counterparts. And this is even after adjusting for age, experience, and discipline of practice.


Women report difficulty finding mentors and are significantly less likely to receive sponsorship. Now let me explain the difference. Mentorship is critical to the development of leadership skills or abilities, while sponsorship is a necessity to enter into leadership positions.


No. That certainly makes sense that that would be a significant barrier to academic success. I think it's interesting you mention that women now make up approximately half of physicians in medical school. I went to medical school starting in 1998, and already more than half of my class was women. Why do you think they're still seeing this disparity 20 years later?


That's a great question, and I think we can delve maybe a little bit into our paper here, in terms of what we found in hematology oncology. Because I would imagine that some of these findings are kind of similar across the board. And so what we observed here in this study is that we did see that sharp drop-off in number of associate and full professors. So what we saw, about 45% of women were assistant professors. Only about 36% of the associate professors were women. And only about 22% of the full professors were women. So there's definitely that drop-off over time. And also only about 30% of department leaders were women.


And so one thing that people bring up a lot is just time. Right? So the time to go from assistant professor to associate professor to full professor, is not measured in months or even a couple of years. It's measured in the 10, 20, 30 year time frame. So somebody say that that's probably a big driving factor, is that what we're seeing in medical school has not yet caught up, with what we're seeing in leadership positions that take years-- probably 20, 30, 40 years to achieve.


But the other thing that we can talk about a bit later is it's not just time. It's the fact that people who have those positions may stay in them for 10, 20 years, and not leave room for other people to get into those positions. And also there is differences in how long it takes women to get promoted. And if you have to achieve a certain academic rank to get one of these leadership positions, then there may be delays of women being able to do that for a number of factors that we could talk about.


There is one more factor, which is less obvious, but equally challenging, which perpetuates the problem that we are discussing here. If you look at appointment and promotions in academic medicine, and I have been fortunate that I've practiced in Europe. Then I practiced in US. And now I practice in Canada. And all my practice has been in academic institutions. Whenever somebody is being shortlisted, selected, interviewed, appointed to an academic leadership position; the sole or entire or 90% or 99% of the focus is on that individual's performance of publications, of grants, of collaboration.


Nowhere is the consideration given to a person or individual's track record, for advocacy for equity, diversity, and inclusion. Now such an individual gets into the leadership position, now they are handed a memo saying, you have to ensure equal opportunity, and you have to make sure that minorities are appointed, women are appointed, they are promoted. Now such an individual does not have innate interest, or understanding, or even expertise in equity, diversity, and inclusion.


So previously what was a bottleneck of barriers to entry for women and minorities, has now become a bottleneck and barrier to promotion and leadership positions. And this is a subtle undertaking which people overlook when they are selecting people for appointment positions.


No, I think that's a-- I hadn't thought of that. But that's a very significant factor I would think. And this gets to the larger topic of how we choose our leaders in academic medicine. We don't necessarily choose people based upon skills in leadership, and training in leadership, but rather on personal success in whatever their academic field is, which does not necessarily lend itself to being able to do the job that they've now been appointed to. Can you take us through how you designed your study?


So we started off with publicly available data. And the first thing we did was here [INAUDIBLE] we went to the website, looked at institutions that offered residency and fellowship training, because those were academic institutions by default. From there, we actually downloaded or created the lists of programs, and then visited the website of each program to obtain the list of their faculty from department chair down to the level of assistant professor in hematology and oncology. We looked at leadership positions-- director, associate director, division chief. We also looked at practice type, whether it was university, whether it was community, whether it was a combination of the two. We looked at a number of trainees. We looked at the geographic location, like state of the practice.


In addition to that, we also looked at whether it was an MD or DO, whether it was an international medical graduate faculty, the year since medical school, year since the residency, number of publications, the number of grants, the number of clinical trials, the number of first author publications, number of citations. So we made it as comprehensive as possible from our experience of what it takes for academic appointments, and what is considered vital for academic promotions and to get people into leadership positions.


Yeah, that was one of the things that I wondered, is how one really measures this. And it sounds like you did a wonderful job of trying to identify, as best you could, objective measures. There probably isn't really a way to measure bias about sex differences in appointments. So you would have to look at this using these objective measures.


I agree, Nathan. And let me add to that. What is normal? You know, we talk about normal. Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly. So there are many things that are tangible. Then there are many things also that those are intangible. So we can only study what is objective or objectively can be calculated or measured. But in this equation, I'll give you an example. You look at the interview panels, and most of them are males, right?


Now how are you want to configure bias in that room when a female comes in to interview? Automatically people going to presume, oh, she is married. Automatically people are going to presume, oh, she may have kids, or may she may not be able to do justice to this leadership position, this chair position or what have you. And those are things that are going on in people's heads. There is no way that you can shine a light on that.


Of course. Of course. Although, in a way you do that by trying to match everything as objectively as you can, and seeing if there's still a significant difference at the end. OK, so why don't you start taking me through what you found?


So I talked a little bit about what we had observed in terms of that drop-off in the numbers or the percentages that we see women who were of higher academic rank, and the associate professors, and then only 22% being full professors, and only 30% being leaders of their departments. We did also find that women had lower h-index. So what we could tell in terms of an objective measure of research productivity, although of course that's not by any means a perfect measure, and they also had fewer years of professional experience and fellowship; which again speaks to the fact that while there is parity in gender in medical schools currently; in terms of practicing physicians, there's still this gap.


And then we looked at the odds of obtaining full professorship or leadership of a division, after we adjusted for how long somebody had been in practice, what their productivity was; again measured by the h-index, so not the most perfect measure. And we did not find actually any differences based on sex and the odds of obtaining either professorship or divisional leadership. So again, one could call this a, quote-unquote, "negative study," and that, OK, if you correct for enough of these factors, there don't appear to be sex disparities in women being able to achieve leadership or to obtain higher academic rank.


But I think a very important thing to note is that's not the point we want to be making with this study, is that, oh there's no gender difference. There's no sex disparity here. We want to point out that this is the real world. In the real world, we don't correct for things like clinical experience and academic productivity. You can't do a mathematical correction. What we need to see is why are there things like difference in academic productivity. What are the factors that may make it more difficult for women to be able to achieve these ranks over time? What are the barriers that they're facing, and how can we try to overcome them? Because we're not in a mathematical world, where we just correct for these things, and we need to help our system change to allow women to achieve these positions of leadership.


Yeah, I'm glad that you pointed that out. Because my first read of the paper was actually, wow, they're actually concluding that there isn't a big gender difference, or a sex difference in senior leadership. But as you actually read in, there clearly could be disparities in terms of women being able to achieve the same numbers of publications, and equally high h-index and grant funding that would get them to the point where they would be in a position to get these leadership positions. So the disparity extends well beyond those positions themselves.


There's a lot of data out there that women are funded at lower rates for initial grants. And of course, you know that once somebody gets a grant, they're more likely to get other grants in the future. So putting that barrier in place from the beginning makes it harder for women to get grants over time, makes it harder for them to get published. We know that editorial boards have a lot of sex disparity. We know that as Dr. Khosa also said, there are sex disparities in leadership who are making decisions about who gets promoted. So there are all these unseen variables that we can't account for that are probably barriers to achieving these higher leadership positions.


This is something that always comes up when we talk about barriers to women moving up in leadership roles, that they may be earlier in their careers focus to some extent on raising a family, or even if they are continuing to work without a break, that they have a disproportionate share of family and home care obligations, and that this may lead to lower academic productivity. And therefore some of the measures that go into leadership promotions may not be as prominently featured on their CVs for these reasons. And so do we need to think differently about the criteria that go into promotions?


Exactly. And that's one of the points that we both wanted to make while talking with you today, is that as the saying goes we need to fix the system, not the women. For a long time, when we were told you just need to work harder, be more productive, you need to essentially "be like a man," quote-unquote. We're in a system that was developed by men, run by men, and have criteria that allow men to get promoted. And so if we apply the same criteria to women, we're essentially telling them, you need to behave like a man in order to succeed in the system. So we don't need to tell women to be like a man. We need to change the system to be more friendly for everybody.


And so that does involve things like changing what criteria we look at for promotion. As Dr. Khosa was saying, why are we just looking at the number of publications on a CV? There's a lot of other things that women do that actually make a big contribution, whether it be seeing a higher number of patients, whether it be serving on committees. We know that women are more likely to serve on committees than men, and committees are things that are unrewarded on your CV that take quite a lot of time and effort to do. So there's all these unseen things that women are doing that don't make it onto the CV as a criteria for promotion that we really need to take a much harder look at.


And at the same time, we also need to be changing the system, and to say, what are we doing wrong that allows women to be paid less than men for doing the same tasks? What are we doing wrong that we are funding women at a lower rate than men when they submit grants? What are we doing wrong that allows our editorial board and journal reviewers to continue being primarily men? So we need to really make some changes to the system, both from what supports women, and from how we judge people on a criteria for being promoted.


How do we do that, though? So I think now I mean it's hard to escape that this is a real thing. I mean you've objectively shown differences. It's been well-documented. What do we do in order to make this actually change?


I recently published a paper on Canadian health authorities. And out of the 30 manuscripts that I've published and 50 more that I'm working on, this was the only manuscript which showed clarity. There was no disparity, gender disparity. And the reason for that is because it is the governments that have mandated. And there are carrots and sticks. So if an institution's annual evaluation, or three yearly evaluations does not show progress, that institution's funding, government funding, grant funding, capsizes. And these are the metrics that are applied across health care authorities. These are the metrics by which progress is measured.


Giving out policy and not following it through, or not having repercussions is rewarding bad behavior. The best apology is actually change the behavior. That is what best apology is. Similarly, remedial action has to be avoided, and those who could persist with this behavior have to be taken to task. That is the only way.


I'm a huge fan of Dr. Julie Silver from Harvard Medical School, who is a world leader in gender equity research, very well published in this area. And she always says that if you can't measure it, you can't see it. And it's so important to measure these things. Because number one, as Dr. Khosa said, it gives a baseline for improvement. But number two, it really opens people's eyes to say, hey, we do have a problem. I think if you are trying to go to leadership and convince people that we need to implement some changes, we really need to be bringing some data with you. You can't just say, oh, we have a gender equity problem, because everybody knows it.


You need to say, this is our percentage of women who are in leadership positions. This is what's changed over time. This is what hasn't. And here's what we propose to do to fix it. And here's how we're going to measure our success. So you really need that data as a starting point, and as a measuring stick to see how well your interventions are working.


Well, I think that's a wonderful summation. So Dr. Khosa, Dr. Marshall, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today.


Thank you so much, and god bless. Have a nice day.


Thanks so much for inviting us.


Until next time, thank all of our listeners for listening to this JCO Oncology Practice podcast. If you enjoyed what you heard today, don't forget to give us a rating or a review on Apple podcasts, or wherever you listen. While you're there, be sure to subscribe, so you never miss an episode. JCOOP podcasts are just one of ASCO's as many podcast programs. You can find all recordings at The full text of the paper is available online at, backslash journal, backslash jcoop, posted February 2020. This is Dr. Nate Pennell for the JCO Oncology Practice signing off.