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Forecast Author: Stanford University School of Medicine Last Updated: Sep 7, 2017 - 10:06:33 PM

Helping Women Faculty Advance in Academic Medical Careers

By Stanford University School of Medicine
Oct 21, 2010 - 9:29:41 AM

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( - A federal grant awarded to a researcher at the Stanford University School of Medicine will be used to explore new ways of helping female faculty members overcome a phenomenon known as “stereotype threat” that may limit their career paths.

“There are cultural and institutional barriers that contribute to women’s slower advancement in, and their greater likelihood of leaving, academic medicine,” said grant recipient Hannah Valantine, MD, the school’s senior associate dean for diversity and leadership. “We want to find ways of overcoming those barriers.”

Valantine is receiving a $2 million, three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health for the project. It is one of six Pathfinder Award grants recently announced by the NIH to support innovative approaches to increasing diversity in the nation’s scientific workforce.

Valantine, who is also a professor of cardiovascular medicine, will use the funding for a study aimed at combating “stereotype threat” — situations in which individuals find themselves being evaluated on the basis of a negative stereotype. The concept was pioneered by former Stanford psychology professor Claude Steele, PhD, who is now provost for Columbia University. A prominent example is the stereotype that women are worse at math than men. Studies have shown that if women are required to indicate their gender on a math test, they score lower than on tests that don’t require such a disclosure.

Although stereotype threats have been studied in students and young adults, this is the first time it will be examined among women who have already embarked on careers in academic medicine, Valantine said.

It’s a field ripe for exploration: While women currently make up 41 percent of the ranks of assistant professors in U.S. medical schools, they comprise only 18 percent of full professors. The decision by many of these women to leave academic medicine may help explain findings from a 2009 survey of faculty at medical schools indicating that women consistently felt their work was less valued than did their male counterparts.

With the funding, Valantine and her multidisciplinary team plan to first establish the cues and situations that elicit stereotype threat among women who are junior faculty. Co-investigator Allan Reiss, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and of radiology, will use fMRI technology to monitor the brain activity of participants in this first phase of the research to see how the various situations affect them, and which elicit the largest responses.

Armed with this knowledge, Valantine and her colleagues will move to the second phase in which they will devise and test interventions to counteract the cues. For instance, co-investigator Greg Walton, PhD, assistant professor of psychology, previously devised an intervention to address the stereotype threat of poor school performance among black college students. In that study, one group of black students was asked to read remarks ostensibly authored by older students of both races who said they struggled with feeling they didn’t belong in college but that the feelings eventually lessened. The following quarter, the black students who read the materials had higher grade point averages than black students who had not read the materials or participated in the study.

Similarly, Valantine’s team will develop materials about how senior faculty members of both genders struggled early in their careers but were able to overcome obstacles. The team will develop and test other interventions, such as self-affirmation, designed to help women faculty deal with experiences of stereotype threat. The participants in this phase of the study will be randomly assigned to either the intervention group or a control group of faculty who will participate in a mentoring program along with skill-building workshops, coaching and feedback throughout the course of an academic year. Co-investigators Christy Sandborg, MD, professor of pediatrics, and Marilyn Winkleby, PhD, professor of medicine, will oversee the randomized trial.

The participants will then be monitored to see how the intervention affects their perceptions and sense of belonging at the medical school. The research team will also gather longer-term data on the participants’ manuscript submissions, grant proposals and promotion/retention rates.

“Currently, the factors that prevent women from advancing in academic medical careers are ambiguous, and medical school administrators end up guessing as to how to best to address them,” Valantine said. Sandborg added that, in the same way researchers work to find the best treatments for patients, “we need controlled studies to unambiguously define which interventions are effective for increasing diversity in the biomedical research workforce. We think our research will go a long way toward helping medical schools identify the best methods of supporting the careers of all their faculty.”

Valantine said she thinks Stanford is ideally suited for this kind of innovative research because of its expertise in studies of gender and workplace issues as well as in neuroscience. University and medical school leaders are also committed to broadening the diversity of the faculty, she added, noting that since the 2004 creation of the Office of Diversity and Leadership the medical school has surpassed national norms in the percentages of women faculty at all ranks and has doubled the number of underrepresented minority faculty.

“Despite these metrics of significant progress at Stanford, we want to do even better,” Valantine said. “I am truly delighted to receive the Pathfinder Award because it will enable Stanford to build on its prior efforts to enhance the retention of women and underrepresented minority faculty.”

Other members of the research team are Shelley Correll, PhD, associate professor of sociology; Sabine Girod, MD, DDS, PhD, associate professor of surgery; Daisy Grewal, PhD, research scientist for the Office of Diversity and Leadership; Philip Lavori, PhD, professor of health research and policy; and Vyjeyanthi Periyakoil, MD, clinical associate professor of medicine.

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