March 20, 2023

Women’s History Month and Progress Toward Gender Equity

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March is Women’s History Month and an opportunity to reflect on the important, and too often unacknowledged, contributions women have made to medicine. Women were active practitioners of the medical arts in the ancient world, and have played a critical role as midwives and healers during the entire course of human history.

Throughout U.S. history, it’s been a mostly uphill battle for women with dreams of practicing medicine. (As just one example, in 1873, Harvard Medical School professor Edward Clark wrote that the result of medical education for women would be “monstrous brains and puny bodies.”) Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S., graduating first in her class at Geneva College in 1849. Unable to obtain hospital privileges, she practiced out of her home and later founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, the first hospital in the U.S. staffed by women.

Closer to home, Virginia Hamilton Shaw, M.D., became the first woman to receive a medical degree from the Medical College of Alabama in 1946. Dr. Hamilton, as she was known professionally, completed her residency at Crawford W. Long Hospital in Atlanta and later earned a master’s degree in public health from the University of North Carolina. She served for 34 years as the senior district health director for the 10-county Coosa Health District, responsible for the development and management of northwest Georgia’s public and mental health programs. She also was the first woman to hold the position of public health commissioner in Georgia. She died May 3, 2021, in Cartersville, Georgia, at the age of 96.

Born and raised in Sayreton, Alabama, Wilma Ann Barnes also broke barriers. She enrolled in the medical technology program at the University Medical Center in Birmingham in September 1964, becoming the first Black/African American enrolled in any program at the center.

Read more about both of these pioneering and accomplished women.

In regards to equity for women in medicine, the Heersink School of Medicine recently completed a Faculty Gender Equity Review. The review looked at similarly situated male and female full-time faculty to determine if there are gender differences in pay after adjusting for a variety of legitimate factors that influence compensation, including academic rank, academic discipline and department/organization, work experience at UAB, prior relevant work experience, highest level of education, administrative and distinguished honorific positions, AAMC data based on organization, and clinical productivity.

This was a complex, multi-year, multi-partner process and I am proud to report that the Gender Equity Review shows no statistically significant outcomes when faculty are analyzed by rank or by organization and rank. The review indicates that the outcome of the Heersink School of Medicine’s salary-setting process is consistent with a system that is neutral with respect to gender.

We have exceptional women leaders across our school—department chairs, administrative leaders, teachers and mentors, researchers and scientists—but unfortunately, national evidence shows that women are underrepresented in leadership positions in medicine generally. Data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) shows that women and men have continued to apply, enter, and graduate from medical school in similar proportions since 2003, but women’s representation declines the higher up the ranks one explores. (Women represented 53 percent of our most recent medical school class entering in 2022.) At the top, women make up only 18 percent of department chairs and 18 percent of medical school deans nationally.

I’d like to highlight two organizations that support and mentor women leaders at our school and within UAB Medicine. The Heersink School of Medicine chapter of the American Medical Women's Association (AMWA) supports the national organization’s mission "to advance women in medicine, advocate for equity, and ensure excellence in health care." Our AMWA chapter hosts speakers, panels, and working sessions year-round on timely topics that foster personal and career fulfilment. You don’t have to be an AMWA member to attend these informative events.

UAB’s Momentum in Medicine program is a first-in-its-kind offshoot of the highly competitive Momentum Executive Leadership Program hosted by Momentum Leaders, organized exclusively for women at UAB Medicine. The Momentum program helps women leaders identify their unique strengths and hone their leadership traits and skillsets. Momentum connects women leaders across Alabama and offers networking opportunities and tools for ongoing development. UAB’s Momentum in Medicine is in its second year and includes 16 women from UAB Medicine and the Heersink School of Medicine.

Completing the gender equity study was paramount for us to continue to be an outstanding academic medical center and to compete on a national stage. As pleased as I am that the study found no systemic gender bias, I remain committed to ensuring that our school continues to be proactive in advancing gender equity both in salary and in opportunities to excel for our faculty and staff.