On the Road to Equality: Women in Higher Education
In striving for gender equality, shared experiences, mentorship and evidence-based policies offer a way forward
By Emily Leighton, MA’13
The striking self-portrait, drawn in pen and ink, portrays a focused, determined-looking surgical intern.
Artist Dr. Han Yan, MD’17, a second-year neurosurgery resident at the University of Toronto, says she intentionally drew attention to the surgical cap, mask and loupes in the image that accompanies her commentary on women in surgery for The Lancet.
“At the end of the day, we are all just an extension of the hands behind the surgical work,” she explained. “When we’re performing surgeries, gender shouldn’t be any part of it.”
During the past 18 months, discussions around gender, equity and diversity have taken centre stage around the world.
The global #MeToo movement empowered women and men to share personal stories of sexual harassment and assault. Conferences and events featuring ‘manels’ – a term to describe all-male panels – faced widespread criticism and demands for better representation. And 500 Women Scientists, a grassroots organization that aims to promote women in
“Among my friends in medicine, I have heard several stories related to the #MeToo movement on social media. Their stories really resonated with me and caused me to reflect on some of my own experiences. We’re seeing that it’s worthwhile to have these
For Dr. Yan, these conversations offer glimpses of a culture shift. “Among my friends in medicine, I have heard several stories related to the #MeToo movement on social media,” she said. “Their stories really resonated with me and caused me to reflect on some of my own experiences. We’re seeing that it’s worthwhile to have these
In her article for The Lancet, “A day in the life of a surgical intern: women in surgery”, Dr. Yan shares a snapshot of her day-to-day work and clinical interactions, including the thoughts and questions that surface from being a woman in a male-dominated surgical specialty.
Reflecting on residency interviews in one passage, Dr. Yan says she encountered an unsettling question during the process: “How will you handle being a woman in a demanding and busy surgical field?”
“What was I to do, except mention about my female mentors or my effectiveness at time management?” she writes. “I was surprised by the question. I was also disappointed after talking with other women who showed a tired recognition of an all-too-common shared experience.”
“Women should no longer feel that there is any space they don’t belong. We need to fly our banners confidently in full partnership and solidarity.” —Janet Martin, PharmD
Associate Professor Janet Martin, PharmD, an international expert in evidence-based anesthesia and perioperative medicine, says highly qualified women continue to confront these types of unspoken assumptions in their work.
“Early in my career, I struggled with how to be heard and how to speak with authority as a woman in what was often a room full of men,” she said. “I perceived this as my own limitation or inferiority, I didn’t connect it to the cultural assumptions that play women to the disadvantage.”
Today, women are enrolling in STEM fields in record numbers, and about half of current medical students in the United States, Canada and Europe are women.
But women remain troublingly underrepresented at the highest levels of academic leadership, editorial boards and international associations. At some point in their career trajectory, many women are left sitting on the sidelines.
As Co-Director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Global Surgery, Anesthesia & Perioperative Medicine based at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, Martin studies and
“I’ve seen just how thwarted decision-making is when women’s perspectives and experiences are not included or considered,” she said. “If we don’t have women influencing decision- and policy-making, our decisions and their impact will never reach their full potential.”
Recognizing that women are under-represented in leadership positions is
“Leaders should be representative of the people they serve,” she said. “We can’t continue to overlook half the population. Having many thoughts, ideas and styles at the table
Dr. Pope believes formal mentorship programs are crucial in supporting and encouraging women to pursue leadership positions. She wrote about the topic in a commentary piece for The Lancet, “
Looking to her own specialty as a place to start, Dr. Pope developed the Future Leaders in Rheumatology program for early-career rheumatologists to acquire foundational leadership skills. The program is delivered across four full days within a two-year period, and participants, male and female, are nominated from academic rheumatology programs across Canada.
“We all have to recognize that there are people with talents to offer, and the door should be open to everyone who qualifies.” —Dr. Janet Pope
Topics include time management, communication, human resources, promotion and public speaking. “Many of these skills haven’t been developed or learned in a formal capacity,” said Dr. Pope. As a young physician, Dr. Yan also sees the value in fostering informal mentorship opportunities between women in positions of influence and younger generations. “It’s helpful to learn from successful women about their struggles, their successes and their strategies for navigating the professional world,” she said.
Mid-career professionals are another important consideration in striving for a more equitable and diverse academic community. “Not everyone wants to be in leadership, but at this level, many people, particularly women, have self-selected based on external factors, such as family and child-rearing,” said Dr. Pope. “We all have to recognize that there are people with talents to offer, and the door should be open to everyone who qualifies.”
Martin advocates for an evidence-based approach to addressing issues around gender equity and representation. “We don’t yet entirely understand our own blind spots in terms of the biases at play, or why societies that value and champion equality
With increasing recognition of the need for gender equality among postsecondary institutions, Martin is hopeful about the
“These conversations and attitude shifts open up new vistas of opportunity,” she said. “Women should no longer feel that there is any space they don’t belong. We need to fly our banners confidently in full partnership and solidarity.”