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YSM Celebrates 100 Years of Women

June 11, 2018
by Jill Max

Just over a century ago, Louise Farnam, Helen May Scoville, and Lillian Nye were the first women to be admitted to the School of Medicine. Their achievements and contributions, along with the many women who have followed since then, were recognized on June 1, 2018 with Celebration and Reflection, a daylong symposium commemorating the 100-year anniversary of women at YSM.

Almost 500 faculty, students, alumni, staff, and friends of the school gathered in Harkness Auditorium to attend the event, which kicked off Alumni Weekend. Sponsored by the Committee on the Status of Women in Medicine (SWIM), the Minority Organization for Retention & Expansion (MORE), and the Dean’s Office, the program included presentations by faculty and alumnae on the history of women in medicine, basic science, clinical science and practice, and current issues facing women. “The breadth and depth of the accomplishments of this impressive group of clinicians and scientists, as well as their deep commitment to improving health, was inspiring,” says Robert J. Alpern, MD, dean and Ensign Professor of Medicine.

Speakers discussed their contributions to their respective fields, as well as the struggles that women in medicine have faced: how choosing medicine was seen as a rejection of social and family life, the paucity of women role models in leadership positions, and the exclusion of women from committees and conversations.

The history session provided an enlightening overview of women in medicine, from the time Elizabeth Blackwell—the first woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S.—was admitted to New York’s Geneva Medical College in 1847 as a joke, to the present day, when only 15 percent of U.S. medical school deans are women (as of 2016). The session highlighted that while women have made great strides, challenges remain. Many of these were discussed during the sessions on being a woman as and from an underrepresented minority and current issues facing women.

In her science session keynote address, Juanita L. Merchant, MD ’81, PhD ’84, H. Marvin Pollard Professor of Gastrointestinal Sciences, professor of internal medicine, and professor of molecular & integrative physiology at the University of Michigan Medical School, noted that many women begin careers in academic medicine, but few reach the upper echelons of the tenure-track hierarchy. For women of color, the situation is bleaker; African American women represent only 2 percent of medical school faculty in the U.S. Marie Robert, MD, professor of pathology and former SWIM chair, said that while there will always be work to do, many of the positive steps taken by the medical school in recent years, such as ensuring that women comprise 30 percent of governance committees and 50 percent of senior search committees at YSM, addressing gender-based salary inequities, and the recruitment of a deputy dean for diversity and inclusion, have been in partnership with SWIM. In her history session keynote address, Mary Lake Polan, MD ’75, PhD ’70, MPH, clinical professor in obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences, said that climate is an issue at many institutions. “When more than 40 percent of people in the room are women, the climate changes,” she noted.

In the science and clinical sessions, women discussed their work in laboratory and patient settings, as well as the path they have followed in their careers. Many credited their success to multiple mentors who supported them along the way. Such guidance is critical to successfully navigate systems and practices defined by men. “Women, in the structures and facilities that accommodate us, have often been an afterthought,” said Michele Johnson, MD, professor of radiology and biomedical imaging and of neurosurgery, who was the first African American woman named a full professor at the School of Medicine.

The prevalence of unconscious bias among both men and women emerged as another theme. Amy Justice, MD ’88, PhD, professor of medicine (general medicine) and of public health (health policy), acknowledged her discovery that she gave the highest scores to men when scoring medical student thesis projects. She and her colleagues conducted a study analyzing 1,200 thesis projects at YSM between 2003 and 2015. They found that women were less than half as likely as men to receive honors for their projects. Although the disparity has grown over time, she reported that in 2018, for the first time ever, four out of four oral presentations—those receiving the highest honors—were by women. “Science deserves the perspective of women,” said Justice.

The symposium concluded with a reception in the Rose Garden, where attendees had a chance to mingle and discuss the day. Symposium planning committee co-chairs Margaret J. Bia, MD, professor of medicine (nephrology) and Elizabeth Jonas, MD, professor of medicine (endocrinology), hope the enthusiasm and excitement generated by the event continue. In a follow-up email Merchant called the symposium “a spectacular program that should be duplicated around the country.”

Submitted by Liz Pantani on June 11, 2018