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Celebrating Women in Leadership

Nine dynamic women are leading departments at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH). That’s a nine-fold increase since Robert N. Golden, MD, became the dean.


He’s celebrating because gender diversity is moving in the right direction, and he’s optimistic because the recruitment of faculty and students from other underrepresented groups is gaining momentum.


Golden’s vision is for the school’s faculty and student body to reflect the rich diversity of our society. He shares, “Our leaders should represent what we seek to achieve as an institution, and we seek to achieve diversity.”


Eleanor Maxine Bennett, MD, climbed some of the tallest peaks in the United States and Switzerland, but some say she scaled bigger mountains at work.


In 1953, when few women held medical degrees, Bennett (1915-2008) joined the faculty of the Division of Otolaryngology at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, now called the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. Ten years later, she became the chief of that division. Back then, success for women physicians required toughness to gain acceptance from many male peers.


Changing Landscape


Pictured from left: Patricia Keely, Terri Young, Laurel Rice, Ellen Wald, Susan Lederer, Valerie Gilchrist, Tricia Kiley.Today, the School of Medicine and Public Health is celebrating success in attracting many talented women to its faculty and student body. About 38 percent of its faculty are women, and many women hold leadership positions. Of the school’s 27 departments, nine have women serving as chairs.


This was not the case when Golden became the dean of the School of Medicine and Public Health in 2006.


“When I first met with all of the chairs, I was astonished to observe that, while we had many talented female faculty members, only one was a chair,” says Golden.


Ellen Wald, MD, chair of the Department of Pediatrics, was that woman. She and her husband, Arnold Wald, MD, a professor in the Department of Medicine, joined the UW School of Medicine and Public Health faculty just before then-Dean Philip Farrell, MD, PhD, handed the reins to Golden.


“Dean Golden announced early on that he wanted to recruit more women leaders to provide role models for other women and assure equity,” she recalls.


Golden elaborates, “When I pull together our department chairs to discuss challenging issues, having bright men and women in the room provides a rich and complete perspective.”


All Types of Diversity


Golden also made it a high priority for the school to increase other types of diversity, including racial, ethnic, economic background and sexual orientation.


“We have been able to improve gender diversity quicker than several other important types of diversity. Due to our region’s demographics, it may take more time and effort to increase the number of faculty and students from some underrepresented groups,” he says.


Patricia Keely, PhD, chair of the Department of Cell and Regenerative Biology, observes diversity increasing among basic science graduate students, which she credits, in part, to supplemental funding provided by the National Institutes of Health for trainees from underrepresented groups.


UW School of Medicine and Public Health initiatives such as the Centennial Scholars Program — which provides support for junior faculty from underrepresented groups — make a difference, notes Patricia Kokotailo, MD, associate dean for faculty development and faculty affairs, whose office administers such programs.


“The Centennial Scholars Program is helping two medical history and bioethics faculty members excel in my department,” says Susan E. Lederer, PhD, chair of the Department of Medical History and Bioethics.


Golden says, “The historic discrimination against women and other underrepresented groups gradually has subsided, and the blatant, illegal barriers are gone. But other more subtle, and at times unconscious, biases persist.”


Recalling a story from early in her own career, Lederer shares, “When my husband applied for our supermarket check-cashing card, he wrote ‘Dr. Susan Lederer and Mr. Mark Lederer’ on the form, but the card listed the doctorate after his name.”


Work and Life Balance


Recognizing that only women face the biological realities of pregnancy, Golden says he observes many men becoming more involved in family responsibilities, which traditionally have been largely borne by women. To aid families, the school helped establish a nearby infant care center that gives priority to UW School of Medicine and Public Health faculty and staff.


Valerie Gilchrist, MD, chair of the Department of Family Medicine, shares, “Compared to the 1980s, I’ve noticed men and women being equally concerned about having time to balance their professional and family lives. I’m careful about giving advice, because the way I did it may not fit others.”


Keely notes, “It frightens some women to think they may have to choose between a career and having a family. I tell them that, as a single mom, I’ve raised a child and had a successful career. I place a high priority on spending time with my son, who is now 16.”


Azita Hamedani, MD, Wisconsin Chair of Emergency Medicine — who has two young children and a physician husband, and spent the past several years helping her department evolve from its earlier status as a division — says she feels like a juggler who manages several spinning plates.


“One of my mentors advised, instead of focusing on ‘balance,’ embrace that at different times personal and professional issues will require more or less of your attention. It’s important to realize if an important ‘plate’ is wobbling, then take care of it,” explains Hamedani.


Like the other women leaders, Christine Seibert, MD, associate dean for medical education and a professor in the Department of Medicine, has always been a working mom. She explains that her ability to maintain balance was aided by her pharmacist husband’s flexibility to work less when their children were young.


Seibert notes that Madison’s size — compared to Chicago, where she used to work — allows reasonable commute times and opportunities to attend school events. All of these leaders value this type of flexibility. Kokotailo recites a favorite quote: “Women can have it all, they just can’t have it all at once.”


Implicit Bias


Today’s biggest challenge in hiring and promoting women is implicit bias. Fortunately, the School of Medicine and Public Health has ready access to a nationally recognized expert in women’s equity, Molly Carnes, MD, a professor in the Department of Medicine and director of the UW-Madison Center for Women’s Health Research. She prolifically publishes and lectures on her research about diversity.


Golden calls upon Carnes to coach search committees about implicit bias, which can taint the way people perceive candidates. Kokotailo arranges faculty workshops through the UW-Madison Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute, which Carnes co-founded.


“Molly has demonstrated that even men and women with the best of intentions are not immune from implicit bias,” says Golden. “We need to do everything possible to create an environment that attracts women and men from diverse backgrounds. The best candidate can’t possibly be a woman if you haven’t attracted any female applicants.”


Shared Vision


Laurel Rice, MD, chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, says Golden’s approach is working.


“Before interviewing in Wisconsin, I was the vice chair of OB/GYN at the University of Virginia,” she says. “It was easy to ascertain that the UW School of Medicine and Public Health embraced important principles of women’s equity and women’s health. This is helping our department develop into one of the nation’s top OB/GYN departments.”


The chair of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, Terri Young, MD, MBA, shares a similar sentiment.


“Having recently joined the school, I am grateful that my vision resonates with that of Dean Golden and others. I would love to build our Ophthalmology and Vision Program into a translational research center of excellence. We have outstanding basic and clinical researchers, so I think it’s possible,” says Young.


She is grateful for teachers who recognized her strengths and helped her achieve her dreams. Excellence during Young’s senior year at a Detroit high school earned her opportunity-rich summer positions at Ford Motor Company. She received a scholarship to Bowdoin College in Maine.


She earned her medical degree from Harvard Medical School and completed further training at the University of Illinois, University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University. She was a tenured professor of ophthalmology, pediatrics and medicine at Duke University before moving to Madison.


Professional Mentors


The leaders say many mentors helped them along the way, and that Golden and others support chairs in ways that matter.


Tricia Kiley, PhD, chair of the Department of Biomolecular Chemistry, appreciated having frequent meetings with Golden when she was a new chair. The Massachusetts native moved to UW-Madison in 1987 for her postdoctoral work before joining the School of Medicine and Public Health faculty, and she fell in love with the university and city. However, earlier in her career, she did not love how people elsewhere expected women to be as tough as men.


“Over time, I realized that was ridiculous. It is important for men to realize the contributions women make. We should encourage everyone to share strengths and accept differences,” notes Kiley, who is married to a professor in the Department of Bacteriology, Tim Donohue, PhD.


Keely agrees, noting, “I think we need to embrace basic differences in the way men and women communicate. We are getting to the point, I believe, where it’s OK to display feminine aspects, such as a propensity for empathy. While both genders can be empathetic, it seems to be more pronounced among women.”


Elizabeth Petty, MD ’86, recalls having few women role models when she attended the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. She says the increase in women leaders attracted her back to her alma mater after she completed a pediatric residency at UW Hospital and Clinics, and genetics fellowships and postdoctoral research at Yale School of Medicine. She is now the senior associate dean for academic affairs.


All leaders encourage trainees and faculty to seek out many mentors of both genders.


“The person you turn to for research help is different from who you go to for clinical reflection or leadership questions,” describes Gilchrist, whose Canadian medical school class included about 20 percent women.


Donata Oertel, PhD — whose husband, Bill Sugden, PhD, is the James A. Miller Professor of Oncology at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health — appreciates the mentoring he provided as she began her career and took on several leadership roles. She was the chair of the former Department of Neurophysiology and interim chair of the Department of Physiology.


Recently named the founding chair of the Department of Neuroscience, Oertel relishes a team approach, noting that Meyer Jackson, PhD, is the department’s associate chair.


“My most important mentors have been my husband and my mother-in-law, who earned her PhD in her 50s and was a strong role model,” notes Oertel. “Bill and I have a son and daughter-in-law who hold PhDs in neuroscience and applied mathematics, respectively. My husband and son have co-authored a paper, and I have learned about optogenetics from our son at Brown University.”


Moms as Role Models


Several women leaders cite their moms as their top role models.


For instance, Young explains that her mom grew up in rural Mississippi and, after high school, joined the Air Force, where she met Young’s father. The couple instilled in their five children an attitude that they could accomplish anything by working hard.


“When I was in high school, my mom went to college, and I became a ‘deputy mom,’” Young shares, adding that history repeated itself when she earned a master of business administration (MBA) degree while her kids were in high school and college.


Similarly, Hamedani will complete an MBA degree in winter 2015. She says her basicscientist parents encouraged her to consider careers that would leverage her compassion and propensity for science. During medical school, Hamedani met influential mentors who helped her explore several interests, including health systems improvement. She found her niche at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.


Evolving Life Plans


When Wald completed her undergraduate degree, she almost whimsically decided to enroll in medical school, based on a friend’s suggestion. Wald became one of 30 women in her class of 200 at State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, where she met her husband.


“We came from humble backgrounds, attended state schools with scholarships, and worked our way through medical school and residencies,” she recalls.


When her husband was called into military duty during the Vietnam era, the couple and their two children moved to the Baltimore Washington corridor, a location she loved. They started medical careers at the University of Maryland (her) and the Johns Hopkins Hospital (him), before moving to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, where they spent nearly three decades.


A proud grandmother of five, Wald says a supportive partner makes a huge difference.


Likewise, Gilchrist says the flexibility to move has helped during her 40-year marriage to Bill Scott, PhD, a psychology professor at Beloit College.


“I spent 25 years on the Northeastern Ohio Medical University faculty, then I moved to Brody School of Medicine in North Carolina and in 2008 came to Madison. Two of our children grew up in Ohio, but our youngest claims Madison as home,” Gilchrist says.


Journey to Leadership


Keely credits the UW School of Medicine and Public Health for identifying people with leadership qualities. For instance, when she was an associate professor, UW Carbone Cancer Center leaders asked her to help lead the Cancer Cell Biology Program. It has evolved into the Tumor Microenvironment Program, which she continues to co-lead.


“Junior faculty don’t necessarily watch for opportunities, so it helps when someone notices your talents and believes you’re ready for more responsibility,” Keely explains.


As part of their growth into leadership, Gilchrist, Kokotailo, Petty, Seibert and Young gained valuable experience through Drexel University’s year-long Hedwig van Ameringen Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine Program for Women (ELAM).


Kokotailo met Gilchrist, a fellow ELAM classmate who worked in Ohio at the time. Petty and Young were ELAM classmates when they worked at different universities.


“The world gets smaller as your profession expands,” says Young.


Participants say ELAM helped them understand functions of health care outside of their niche and create a nationwide network of mentors. Kokotailo called upon ELAM classmates when deciding whether to pursue the associate dean position.


“I was a busy pediatrician and researcher but knew it was time to expand,” she says.


Others, including Keely and Kiley, say their research provides similar networks of people who are working toward a common goal.


Golden notes that the UW School of Medicine and Public Health also supports professional development programs through the Association of American Medical Colleges and UW Medical Foundation. And Keely cites a UW-Madison program that helped her through a rough spell.


In 2006, just before she reached tenure, Keely was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and given a 50 percent chance of survival. A single mom, she underwent major surgery, participated in a clinical trial and struggled to eat enough to regain a healthy weight.


“Because I could not submit grants during that time, the Vilas Life Cycle Professorship helped me maintain my career until I could get back on track. It helps faculty who face major setbacks,” she recalls with gratitude.


Pay it Forward


Thinking about the big picture, Petty shares, “I see my role as helping to nurture the next generation of health care professionals. My goal is to help faculty and learners move forward toward their goals.”


Oertel notes, “I am motivated by helping others thrive. I want them to be as happy as I have been in my career.”


And reflecting on her transition into leadership, Rice says, “It’s no longer about me. I think the way to judge one’s self at this point is to observe the success of others.”


By Kris Whitman

This article appears in the fall 2014 issue of Quarterly.

Date Published: 12/12/2014

News tag(s):  quarterlydiversityqcurrentfeaturesfaculty

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Celebrating Women in Leadership

Last updated: 02/09/2015
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