By Meredith Mann

An illustration of women’s silhouettes, each engaged in a scientific activity (holding a test tube, looking in a microscope, etc.)

The first in-person conference of  FOCUS on Health & Leadership for Women at Penn Medicine since the COVID-19 pandemic was not your typical medical meeting, with a parade of lecturers, poster sessions, and PowerPoint presentations. In part, it was instead a workshop for women faculty to focus on their own health and well-being and learn to take charge of their own personal and professional needs—while also reflecting on important issues driving gender equity in research.

This year’s event included on-the-spot opportunities to schedule primary care visits and mammograms, as well as an active, hands-on session focused on personal wellness action plans, led by Penn cardiologist Jennifer Lewey, MD, MPH, with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia pediatrician Nicole Washington, MD. Amid lively discussion and knowing nods, attendees pledged everything from offloading more household tasks to their partners, to changing their work habits (for instance, restructuring meetings that sap productivity), to seeking out a career mentor or sponsor. 

FOCUS, based in the Perelman School of Medicine for over 25 years, is dedicated to supporting the careers of women faculty and staff, and to leading the charge for research and education in women’s health. For conference attendees, who included residents, faculty, and researchers, the gathering also provided an opportunity to catch up with the latest offerings from FOCUS, which continue to adapt and evolve to meet the needs of women in academic medicine.

Mentors and sponsors

Underrepresented minority women faculty at Penn have new ways of connecting with a career advocate thanks to a year-old FOCUS program, URSponsored, which encourages career advancement while addressing intersectionality in academic medicine. URSponsored’s goal is to help these faculty members achieve promotions and leadership opportunities at the same rate as their colleagues. A partnership with the Alliance of Minority Physicians, it won a 2023 Excellence Through Diversity Fund grant to create a video that features its 26 protégé/sponsor pairs, set up focus groups, and conduct professional development sessions.

Sex and gender representation in science

Working toward equity in who gets to advance in research is an important goal; equally so is the representation of gender diversity in the body of research.

Sometimes drugs work differently in men compared to women, for example—a point raised at the FOCUS fall conference in the leadoff presentation by Janine Clayton, MD, the National Institute of Health’s (NIH’s) associate director for Women’s Health and director of NIH’s Office of Research on Women’s Health. Therefore, it is critically important to conduct medical research that reflects the real gender and sex diversity of the populations who may be treated. In addition, Clayton pointed out that increasing resources for research that focuses on conditions which largely impact women can generate impressive results. For instance, she said, an additional $6 million in funding for studies of rheumatoid arthritis (which affects more women than men) could produce more than $10 billion in economic benefits—a return on investment of a staggering 174,000 percent—as well as many thousands of productive life-years.

At Penn Medicine, one way that FOCUS is working to address gender diversity in scientific inquiry is through a new partnership with another University center, Penn PROMOTES Research on Sex and Gender in Health. The groups’ joint venture, called RAising the Investment in Sex and Gender Evidence (RAISE), seeks to incorporate the analysis of sex and gender differences into research programs throughout Penn’s biomedical schools while also advancing gender equity in the workforce. In its first year, RAISE awarded three $20,000 pilot grants to junior researchers working to incorporate sex as a biological variable into their research, such as a study that examines how sex hormones and inflammatory biomarkers present in females who have sickle cell disease. A second round of grantmaking is now underway.

RAISE has also assembled a research directory that includes 115 investigators from 26 teams, all of whom conduct research that addresses sex/gender differences and women’s health. 

From advancement to outcomes

Helping faculty connect with one another—whether through a conference, a mentoring or sponsorship relationship, or through a research directory—provides networking opportunities for these faculty to advance in their careers and improves their well-being.

The FOCUS team recognizes that compensation matters, too. At the 2022 FOCUS fall conference, held virtually, a leading expert on salary equity in academic medicine was an invited speaker. Carrying that work forward, Courtney A. Schreiber, MD, MPH, the executive director of FOCUS and a professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, has worked with other FOCUS leaders and school leaders to advance the evaluation and action toward making faculty compensation more equitable by gender. Gender equity has been included as a core principle of updated compensation principles affecting faculty of Penn Medicine. In parallel, the FOCUS team highlighted the trailblazing work of Lisa Bellini, MD, senior vice dean for Academic Affairs, and Deborah Driscoll, MD, senior vice president, Clinical Practices of the University of Pennsylvania and vice dean for Professional Services, who have worked to advance gender-inclusive policies, such as one that adjusts clinical schedules to support faculty who need lactation breaks.

“The connection between supporting women in academic medicine and better outcomes for patients and the public health is crystal clear,” said Schreiber. “We need to advocate for a diverse clinical and scientific workforce—our health depends upon it.”

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