The long steady march toward gender equality

An ongoing challenge in the United States and the world is how to measure women’s contributions to life and the workplace equally—to find a way of compensating them, and protect them from the specific forms of harassment to which they are often subjected. Dean Robert J. Alpern, MD, talks about initiatives that have succeeded in narrowing the gap between where Yale School of Medicine is and where it would like to be.

The struggle for gender equality has been long and difficult. Is the end in sight? It’s a continuous thing we need to keep working on. I think we’re getting closer because of what we’ve learned, and what society’s learned. There’s a much greater understanding of the lack of equality, greater understanding of the magnitude of the challenge. These are not simple problems; medicine and science have been male-dominated cultures for a while now. We’re looking at ways to open those places up to women interested in careers, and one of those ways will likely involve examining metrics for success in medicine and science.

What are some of the key gender equality issues you’ve seen as Dean of Yale School of Medicine that have been surprising? When you talk about the women on our faculty, if you’d asked me five years ago, I would have thought sexual harassment was something that affected 5 percent of them. It’s become clear that the problem is much more widespread. We need to take that on and eliminate it. Our doctors shouldn’t feel unsafe in certain situations. The key is to eliminate it completely.

Various issues one might think are easy to resolve relate to raising a family. The classical career paths in medicine have not made it easy to navigate that. We need to rethink career paths, the trajectories that are unforgiving to people who slow down their productivity for a year or two.

And ultimately, many of these things come down to unconscious bias. There’s a big educational component, too. Even since I’ve been here I’ve seen change, and we’ll keep working on ways to create a truly equal workplace for everyone. We’re headed in the right direction.