Though women are 20 percent of full-time faculty in medical schools, they are not rising to senior leadership positions in similar numbers, a situation strikingly different from the corporate world, where women have choices about how high they want to rise.

This scenario is similar to other fields in academia. Even in areas, like the social sciences, where women have overwhelming representation, men are still on par or leading at the highest levels. The big reason is obvious: tenure. The corporate world does not give anyone a job for life and in schools there are a limited number of highest-level positions and the men doing the job were not unqualified, nor can they be discriminated against by firing them to make room for women, and that means women only advance so high until a job opens. But when a new faculty job does open up, women are over-represented in filling the positions, not penalized so the situation is changing, albeit more slowly than some would like.

Yet women may not apply in academia because of the perception of gender bias or a promotion ceiling: If someone young is at the top, the cap on advancement is obvious whereas in the corporate world there is no cap, people can work for themselves.  They tend to leave academia and go into the private sector more than men.

To put numbers to commonly known beliefs, the National Faculty Study evaluated the gender climate in academic medicine and identified several factors related to the current work environment that are contributing to this disparity,  at least according to the respondents. Two factors are difficult to control for - people in leadership positions are not going to believe they are part of the problem (when someone is mugged, you do not interview the criminal first) and people who do not succeed often don't accept that they simply lost, it is the nature of people to assume favoritism for someone else or bias against themselves.

Coauthors Phyllis Carr, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School (Boston, MA), Christine Gunn and Samantha Kaplan, MD, Boston University School of Medicine, Anita Raj, PhD, University of California, San Diego, and Karen Freund, MD, Tufts University School of Medicine (Boston, MA), note the lack of gender equality in the following areas: 

fewer women achieving leadership positions;
disparities in salary; 
more women leaving academic medicine;
a disproportionate burden of family responsibilities and of balancing work and home life on women's career advancement. 

Better methods to track the careers of women and greater institutional oversight of the gender climate are needed, they conclude. 

"The powerful effect of innate bias has been documented. Its effect in the academic medicine sphere needs to be considered," says Rita R. Colwell, PhD, President of the Rosalind Franklin Society and Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

Citation: Carr Phyllis L., Gunn Christine M., Kaplan Samantha A., Raj Anita, and Freund Karen M., 'Inadequate Progress for Women in Academic Medicine: Findings from the National Faculty Study', Journal of Women's Health February 6, 2015, doi:10.1089/jwh.2014.4848.