To the YSM Community:
Our second son, Isaac, was born just about two months after I joined the faculty as a brand new assistant professor in the Division of Clinical Pharmacology at Vanderbilt. I found the transition from one to two children harder than the later transition from two to three, but at the time I was certainly not going to speak about it with anyone at work. That would have revealed weakness and a lack of seriousness about my career. I was invited to submit a career development grant (a predecessor to the KL2) while I was home on maternity leave and came in to present to the institutional selection committee just two weeks after Ike was born. At around this time, I received a two-paged single-spaced letter from Lee Limbird, chair of the Department of Pharmacology, my secondary academic home. Dr. Limbird was the first woman basic science chair at Vanderbilt and later went on to become the associate vice chancellor for research. Her course on receptors was a famous rite of passage for graduate students, post-docs, and junior faculty in the department. Dr. Limbird’s unsolicited letter addressed the art of juggling a career and family and let me know that I was not alone. It also impressed upon me that the journey on which I was embarking was possible.
I hesitated to write about something this personal in Beyond Sterling Hall, but the value and importance of letting our faculty know that they are not alone and that they will succeed as they juggle work with child care or elder care through the COVID-19 pandemic compelled me to share my personal experience.
As was noted in a recent town hall of women in medicine, in our society, women often serve in the primary care giver role in families. The distribution of responsibilities in a family is at once a societal question, a highly personal choice, and the product of a negotiation in a relationship. Most women in academic medicine achieve a precarious balance between commitments at home and aspirations at work. There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has upset this balance. The disruption of child care and school during the pandemic has disproportionately affected the productivity of women faculty.
We have much work to do to support our working women and families. Based on a recent survey of the YSM community about child care needs, an estimated 30% of faculty and staff may need child care in order to return to work or study. Today, I would like to highlight the first steps that the medical school and university have taken in increasing support for child care and elder care:
We are also focused on the need to decrease the impact of COVID-19 on career development:
For me, Dr. Lee Limbird’s support at a time of transition meant the world. Our mentors and sponsors need not look like us, however. With women and underrepresented groups currently comprising 35% and 6% of our senior faculty respectively, they cannot. Two of my most influential sponsors were men. John A. Oates, chair of medicine at Vanderbilt appointed the first woman chief resident in the Department of Medicine. When I joined the faculty, he made it clear that he believed in me and had high expectations. Alastair Wood has remained a sponsor over many years. He brought the perspective of having watched his wife, Margaret Wood, chair of Anesthesiology at Columbia for 20 years, navigate academic medicine, and often encouraged me to look at jobs that I would not have considered otherwise.
For our faculty, students, and staff, in the words of the poet, Maya Angelou, the “mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” So while we work to shore up resources for our faculty, I ask our senior faculty to reach out to our junior faculty, and to remind them that they will not only survive but thrive.
Nancy J. Brown, MD
Jean and David W. Wallace Dean of Medicine
C.N.H. Long Professor of Internal Medicine