In the recent Chronicle op-ed piece I
published with my colleague Lovell Jones on the need to widen the participation
of the Texas Medical Center’s flagship institutions in a program of citywide
cancer screening, we discuss the lack of minority and women leaders at the
critical decision–making table of our previous employer, MD Anderson. On the
web pages of the Chronicle, we were taken to task about this observation by
those thinking Anderson has made great progress in this regard. This may well
be a glass half empty, glass half full perspective taken by different people
upon viewing the same facts.
I shall leave the subject of the role of
minorities in leadership positions in American academic medicine to my
colleague Dr. Jones. He is far more knowledgeable and qualified than I on this
subject. I will take on the issue of women myself. Spoiler alert: there will be
no snide comments or double entendres in this blog. This is a real problem and
it is no longer amusing to me after having watched it unroll in the past 42
years of my marriage to the current Head of the Division of Pediatrics at
Some background first.
I am the product of a marriage that lasted
over 54 years prior to my father’s death. My mother trained at being and was an
elementary school teacher who stayed at home until my younger sister stopped
returning from school for lunch. She then went back to work in a classroom for
the next 20 years. Throughout my life, for whatever reason, I have been
attracted to powerful, smart women. I suppose my mother laid the groundwork for
all of that, but so did my father who treated her as an equal—always. Thus, it
was no surprise that I married who I did or worked successfully with a Chief
Academic Officer for over 8 years who was one of only two women to reach the
inner leadership circle at Anderson and the only member of the faculty to do
so. (If that’s your idea of progress over 75 years, fine, but it is not mine).
I have reached the conclusion after my
time as a vice president at Anderson and now as a Chief Medical Officer elsewhere
that all the self-help books in the world including Lean In will not be enough
for our society and academic medicine in particular to shake off its bias
against over half of the population and make a concerted effort to include
women in positions of leadership at all levels of our profession.
Why is this important and why now?
Over half of the medical students today
are women. They have brought a unique and different perspective to medicine
that most involved would say has been welcomed. It is not that women are better
than men. It is that they are different. They deal with each other differently
and they deal with members of the opposite sex differently. They care for
patients in ways that men do not and they think differently. Again not better
or worse, differently.
They lead differently. They manage differently. But
surely, for American medicine to continue to lead the world (if it really does)
it needs every single member of the medical profession to have the opportunity
to contribute. To do this, men will have to go out of their way to include
women in the mix. While I applaud the efforts of Dr. Elizabeth Travis, the so
far only Associate VP of Women Faculty Programs at Anderson (appointed by Dr.
Kripke, of course) and a close friend for over 30 years, she cannot do this
alone. There must be active, demonstrable, and inclusive searches for every leadership
position open at Anderson and that search committee must include women as
should the applicant pool. We have long since passed the day when a department
chair in the Division of Cancer Medicine could get away with saying (as he did)
that there were no qualified women candidates for the Division Head job. It
wasn’t true then. It’s not true now.
Does this sound like I am advocating for an
affirmative action program for women at Anderson?
While there has been progress in the hiring of
more women into roles of academic departmental leadership, the current culture
to centralize more and more power and money in the 5 white males who lead the
organization and functionally marginalize the Division Heads and department
chairs when it comes to crucial strategic matters that affect them and their
faculty members, suggests that only with a diverse central executive committee
(or whatever they call it now) will the leadership of Anderson resemble the
faculty and patients of Anderson and mirror their sensitivities.
I appreciate all the critical comments about our
op-ed we have received even the ones labeling us less than sane. Perhaps the
critics are correct. But cancer screening for everyone was the purpose of a
whole lot of research and to not implement that suggests that there is means
testing for the benefits of scientific research, even the research paid for by
federal taxpayers’ dollars.
I also appreciate those who think that Anderson
has made great strides in placing women and minorities in important positions
in the Anderson hierarchy. I simply do not agree and it will take more people
who see and think like me, mostly men, to make the changes required for
Anderson to get the most out of ALL of its people.