Women in STEM and a Return Visit to my Alma Mater

STEM, STEMM, STEAM.  There are a number or varieties to this abbreviation.  Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math, Medicine.  Traditionally these are fields which have been dominated by men, and while there are increasing numbers of women joining the ranks, we are still a long way from parity.

Since I am a surgeon, I will focus on medicine.  Every 2 years, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) posts a report on The State of Women in Academic Medicine (https://www.aamc.org/members/gwims/statistics/).  The most recent data is from 2015-2016.  That year, just under half of the students accepted into medical school and who graduated from medical school were women.  On the upside, this is a significant improvement from 1965-1966 where women made up only 8.9% of students accepted and 6.9% of graduates.  In 2015, in the field of surgery, 19% of the M.D. faculty were women and percentages in academic rank were:  Instructor – 31%, Assistant Professor – 24%, Associate Professor – 17%, Full Professor – 9%.  Of the 315 Surgery Department Chair positions, 10 were held by women.

A 2016 study from JAMA Internal Medicine had some interesting findings about salary discrepancies (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5558151/).  This study looked at salary data on 10,241 academic physicians at 24 public medical schools.  On average, women earned $51,000 less than their male peers, were less likely to be full professors (20% vs. 38%) and had fewer first/ last author publications.  After adjusting the data for multiple factors, women still made approximately $20,000 less.  The salary difference was most notable for surgical subspecialties. Perhaps most troubling is that adjusted female salaries for full professors were comparable to male associate professors, and female salaries for associate professor were comparable to male assistant professors.

So, while women are entering medicine at roughly the same rate as men, they are not achieving the same level of financial compensation or holding a proportionate number of leadership positions.  Many of the other STEM fields are even further behind.  For example, a recent article published in The Atlantic calculated that it might take 258 years to close the gender gap in physics (https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/04/when-will-the-gender-gap-in-science-disappear/558413/).

So why do these gaps persist?  It is likely multifactorial.  Young girls have not traditionally been encouraged to take math and science courses; women take time away from careers for child rearing and are also more likely to be caretakers for aging parents and relatives; and there are inherent differences in how women lead and negotiate, just to name a few.

Many different strategies have been proposed to help close the gender gaps from encouraging high school girls to take classes in calculus, physics, and computer science to giving greater recognition to demands outside of the workplace and improving access to parental leave and career breaks.  Women could support each other with efforts such as amplification (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/10/25/how-a-white-house-womens-office-strategy-went-viral/?utm_term=.aa39e41003f0) and work to develop more robust informal networks.

As a result of my Homeward Bound involvement, I reached out to my alma mater in Lynbrook, New York. I wasn’t exactly sure where things would go, but I felt like this was the perfect opportunity to reconnect.  My Lynbrook education has been at the foundation of my career and I am forever indebted to my outstanding teachers.

I met with Melissa Burak, the Superintendent of Schools (who incidentally is the daughter of longtime friends of my parents and I think it had probably been 35+ years since I last saw her) and it turns out, the school district hosts a Women in STEAM night each year for 4thand 5thgrade students.  Unfortunately, due to scheduling and travel constraints, I won’t be able to attend this year’s session.  So instead, we recorded a brief video presentation which will be used this year.  Next year I will plan to attend in person with an updated 2.0 version post-Antarctica.  It was great to go back into my high school which looks almost exactly as it did when I was last there in 1991.  Well, the computer room has been significantly updated (yes, there has been a considerable amount of technologic advancement in the last 27 years), but at least it’s in the same place.  For a sneak peak of the video follow this link:  https://drive.google.com/open?id=1IZmxga_nt6DmjRLBLsf4c2TI3fN-llND.


Antarctica Fun Fact:  The coldest recorded temperature was -128.6 degrees Fahrenheit. It was recorded on July 21, 1983 at the Soviet Vostok Station.

2 thoughts on “Women in STEM and a Return Visit to my Alma Mater

  1. I love your posts. You failed to mention that you the pediatric surgery division chief and surgeon-in-chief at Glennon where you have the opportunity to babysit several talented, yet very immature young surgeons (all male).


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