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Gender Bias Takes Toll on Women in Medicine, Study Shows

Analysis  |  By Christopher Cheney  
   December 03, 2021

The strongest negative predictors of workplace satisfaction among female physicians and researchers were male-dominated culture, lack of sponsorship, and lack of mentoring.

Gender biases negatively affect workplace satisfaction for female physicians and researchers at academic health organizations, a new research article indicates.

Earlier research has established the existence of gender bias against female healthcare staff members. For example, bias experienced by women in medicine includes harassment and discrimination as well as gender wage gaps.

The new research article, which was published by Advances in Health Care Management, is based on survey data collected from nearly 300 women working in medicine. The organizations where the women worked included academic medical centers in 19 states.

The study features several key data points.

  • The strongest negative predictors of workplace satisfaction were male-dominated culture, lack of sponsorship, and lack of mentoring.
  • "Queen bee syndrome," in which women are targets of aggression from other women in leadership positions, was also associated with workplace dissatisfaction.
  • Survey respondents reported the highest degree of agreement about constrained communication. "Most notably, women in our sample reported being mindful of their communication approach when exercising authority (96%); downplaying accomplishments (89%); and exercising caution when self-promoting (87%). Similarly, 68% of participants reported being interrupted by men while speaking," the study's co-authors wrote.
  • Survey respondents reported several gender gaps. "Women in our sample also reported having to work harder than male colleagues for the same credibility (70%); that decisions in their organization are made by men (61%); and that they have made less money than their male counterparts (66%)," the study's co-authors wrote.

With the number of women enrolled in medical schools exceeding the number of men, addressing gender bias in medicine should be a priority, the co-authors wrote. "As more women enter the field of medicine, identifying and eliminating gender bias is vital to reducing its harmful effects on the personal lives and career trajectory of these women as well as the industry as a whole."

Addressing gender bias

Healthcare organizations can take several steps to mitigate gender bias, the co-authors wrote:

  • "Institutions should first endeavor to assess bias against their women employees. Using the assessment data on aspects of bias present in their organizations, managers should conduct an inventory of structure, hierarchy, and processes to determine where points of inequity reside."
  • "To address male culture, institutions should ensure equity in decision-making, alter promotion policies, adjust meeting schedules, restructure the role of the chair, and improve reporting relationships. Organizations will benefit by developing formal career pathways early in the onboarding process and developing communication channels that celebrate achievements of women and men equally."
  • "By focusing on lack of mentoring and lack of sponsorship, leaders should implement targeted initiatives that support women through formal mentorship as well as advocacy and sponsorship activities while attenuating men's fear or apprehension of mentoring women. Leaders who mentor and sponsor junior women should be rewarded."
  • "Organizations should communicate clearly that queen bee behaviors will not be tolerated and create safe reporting mechanisms for victims."

Despite its power and pervasiveness, there are practical steps institutions can take to mitigate the impact of male-dominated cultures on female physicians and researchers, the lead author of the study, Amber Stephenson, PhD, MPH, associate professor of healthcare management at Clarkson University, told HealthLeaders.

"Leaders of academic health science environments should first publicly acknowledge the existence of gender bias to begin to challenge deeply established—yet inequitable—social norms. Openly rejecting male-dominated social norms sends a clear message that such practices are not endorsed. Organizations should engage in a deep and honest assessment of the prevalence of male-dominated culture within divisions and departments. Academic medical centers can analyze organizational structures to identify unbalanced power within the hierarchy and assess the representation of women in leadership. They can safeguard equitable decision-making through the establishment of formal processes that include broad stakeholder groups and standardize processes for hiring and promotion," she said.

A lack of women to serve as mentors should not stop organizations from creating and supporting mentoring opportunities for women, study co-author Leanne Dzubinski, PhD, interim dean at the Cook School of Intercultural Studies at Biola University, told HealthLeaders.

"Organizations can sponsor formal mentoring programs for women and find creative ways to support and encourage informal mentoring relationships. Something as simple as providing a monthly lunch meeting to discuss professional development can be highly effective. Additionally, mentoring can happen one-on-one or in small groups. And those relationships could be formally organized or could be encouraged to develop organically through affinity groups such as research support groups. Finally, women can benefit from female mentors who have successfully navigated issues unique to women. Male mentors can also be beneficial as they may have better access to institutional knowledge and resources, and they may be better positioned to act as a sponsor," she said.

There are several ways that organizational leaders can help female physicians and researchers be heard and acknowledged, study co-author Amy Diehl, PhD, chief information officer at Wilson College, told HealthLeaders.

"First, help women with self-promotion by soliciting reports of their achievements and by naming and celebrating accomplishments in meetings and other public forums. Second, to combat interruptions, meeting organizers can set a 'no interruptions' rule for meetings. When interruptions happen, the facilitator should intervene: 'Julie was speaking, let's let her finish her thought.' Last, train your entire staff on bystander interventions. For example, when women are ignored or their ideas are stolen, meeting facilitators and bystanders can help by calling it out: 'Aisha just mentioned that idea, let's hear her thoughts,'" she said.

Christopher Cheney is the CMO editor at HealthLeaders.


Earlier research has established the existence of gender bias against female healthcare staff members.

"Queen bee syndrome," in which women are targets of aggression from other women in leadership positions, was associated with workplace dissatisfaction in the new survey study.

Survey respondents reported several gender gaps, including women receiving lower compensation than their male counterparts.

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