Moving the Needle on Gender Equity

Prizes Recognize Advances Made While New Grant Could Further Improve the Status of Women at VP&S

January 6, 2022

The Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons traces its origins back to the time of the American Revolution, but it was only a century ago that women were brought into the fold of medical education at Columbia. The first woman faculty member, Rosalie Slaughter Morton, MD, joined the medical faculty in 1916, and the college’s first women students matriculated a year later in 1917, graduating in 1921.

But thanks to past and present efforts of trailblazers across the profession, today’s medical professoriate is almost 50% women and more accomplished than at any time in history. An award from the National Institutes of Health in August recognized VP&S for leading the way in the advancement of equity for women faculty in biomedical and behavioral sciences. A few weeks later, the Association of American Medical Colleges announced it would honor Anne L. Taylor, MD, vice dean for academic affairs, for her role in that success, celebrating her leadership in the advancement of women in medicine at Columbia and beyond.

In considering the path of women at VP&S, Taylor—herself a faculty member, the John Lindenbaum Professor of Medicine—has worked with fellow faculty members and school leadership to honor the courageous past of women faculty, to maintain a flourishing present, and to keep a determined eye on the challenges that still remain.

women faculty at Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons
A century after the first woman faculty member joined the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, women make up nearly half of the medical school’s faculty. A group of current full-time faculty gathered for a photo at the Vagelos Education Center. Photograph by Jorg Meyer.

Building it up better

Ask anybody about Anne Taylor, and the responses will be glowing. In addition to heading academic affairs for VP&S, she is senior vice president for faculty affairs and career development at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, a role in which she stewards the career growth, satisfaction, and recognition for all faculty across the medical center.

When Taylor arrived at Columbia in 2007, VP&S had no professional development programs for faculty. Women accounted for 38% of full-time faculty, and while that number was above the national average at the time, women faculty were not included proportionately in many important aspects of the school’s decision-making processes nor did they have access to as high quality mentorship as men faculty.

Anne Taylor
Anne Taylor

Working in concert with Lee Goldman, MD, then dean, and many fellow faculty members, Taylor and her newly recruited team in the Office of Academic Affairs set to work to create an approach to faculty professional development that considered important determinants that have been shown to positively impact satisfaction, success, and vitality for all faculty. A few of these important determinants of faculty vitality include clarity in governance processes, development of networks of peers and appreciation by peers, support for academic advancement, and support for work/life integration. While the overarching task of the new Office of Academic Affairs was to support all faculty, an important guiding principle was to be sure that the specific needs of women and diverse faculty were identified and addressed.

Clara Lapiner, assistant vice president of faculty professional development, diversity, and inclusion, was among Taylor’s first hires in the Office of Academic Affairs, where they have worked together for 13 years. “It’s been an incredible journey, an immense privilege, and a huge learning experience to work with Dr. Taylor on implementing her vision,” Lapiner says. “Our team has been able to create impactful and sustained institutional change. To see her approach to this work—in building on these programs and initiatives, constantly incorporating faculty feedback, and making sure that our offerings served their needs—has been a phenomenal journey, and the work has continued to grow.”

The office’s approach has been multidimensional and faculty-driven with a focus equally divided among making sure that processes surrounding academic advancement were explicit and clear to all faculty; on inclusiveness in the award of honors and access to leadership development; and on making sure that specific knowledge necessary for success was available to all faculty groups. The team heard clearly from women and diverse faculty about the need for peer mentoring and support networks, so facilitation of such groups became an important facet of the office’s work. This approach was expanded to bring together faculty by academic pathways, so researchers, clinicians, and educators had the opportunity to meet and learn from others committed to the same type of work. Many women faculty take part in more than one peer group, sharing experiences both by demographic group and academic pathway groups. These groups encouraged shared knowledge, psycho-social support, and the opportunity for women to address issues specific to women.

An early CUIMC-wide project reviewed and clarified academic tracks. These are the pathways that define the work emphasis of faculty—whether clinician, researcher, or educator—as well as parameters for advancement in expertise and recognition. Advancement in rank is important because it signals growth in expertise and recognition and also because it defines eligibility for leadership positions and honors. While women faculty were steadily increasing in numbers, they were not being advanced in academic rank in proportionate numbers. The new system was broadly disseminated to both departmental faculty and leadership. In the year following implementation of this system, the percentage of newly promoted associate professors who were women rose from an average of 32-34% to 53%, followed by a more gradual but sustained increase from 40% to 50% in subsequent years. The percentage of newly promoted professors who were women also rose in the years following the introduction of the new tracks. The result of this change in process is that the percentage of VP&S women at advanced rank has continued to grow ahead of the national averages for women in medicine, and women have been awarded more honors that require attainment of advanced academic rank. Currently, 58% of assistant professors are women who can now expect to advance to senior ranks and to be eligible for positions of leadership as well as honors and awards.

Skills training in leadership and management, taught by faculty from Columbia’s business school and Teachers College, was offered to all faculty, but these programs were also offered to women-only and diverse-only faculty cohorts, taught by faculty whose research work was focused on the impact of gender and diversity on teams and leadership. Thus, women had the opportunity to understand general principles of leadership and management within the context of how gender might influence these roles. Group mentoring programs, targeted to clinician scientists, basic scientists, and educators, were also piloted for women-only faculty cohorts. These began spontaneously; a group of women faculty who met during one of the office’s sponsored leadership programs started meeting regularly, trading advice, and building a community that can help overcome common obstacles and advance their careers. Taylor’s team adopted the group’s model and formalized it to be replicated for others.

Today, the work of advising and facilitating mentorship has been expanded by faculty advisory deans, who lead group mentoring sessions, and the VP&S Office of Women and Diverse Faculty, an office recommended by the 2018 Dean’s Advisory Committee for Women Faculty and Dean’s Advisory Committee for Faculty Diversity and Inclusion. While peer mentoring programs are open to all faculty, they are most heavily used by women faculty. Additional group mentoring programs in similar formats are now also offered for diverse faculty and LGBTQ+ faculty cohorts. To encourage faculty to create and drive mentoring relationships, in concert with the Provost’s Advisory Committee, Taylor and Lapiner co-authored a “Guide to Best Practices in Faculty Mentoring” used universitywide as a resource for faculty.

Other programs to ensure all faculty have equal knowledge around career development and support include new faculty orientation; leadership and management training; workshops on career development and academic advancement; mentorship workshops; training in teaching and pedagogy, negotiation and conflict management; and research team management.

An important working principle has been to view all processes, policies, and procedures through the lens of gender equity. Thus, the office tracks faculty recruitment, advancement, leadership, and honors/awards among women and men. Feedback and evaluation of all programs are collected, reviewed, and used to improve existing programs as well as initiate new approaches. Careful data collection and review ensure that women are not only recruited and retained, but also included in organizational leadership, key decision-making committees, and nominations for honors and awards. Actions to advance gender equity at VP&S have included changes to governance and policies, particularly those that might inadvertently negatively impact women, with increased transparency of academic advancement, recruitment, and mentorship. Academic Affairs also focuses on salary equity, enhanced work/life support, faculty recognition, and regular review and reporting on gender and diversity metrics.

The August recognition by the NIH—the Prize for Enhancing Faculty Gender Diversity in Biomedical and Behavioral Science—was given to 10 organizations by the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health. The award honors VP&S for programs that have led to improvements in gender diversity and equity among faculty members within departments, centers, or divisions. The aim of the prize is to share and promote the broad adoption of replicable, evidence-based institutional approaches to promoting gender diversity.

While not the only measure of success, the number of women faculty across all ranks and academic tracks is one indicator of progress. At VP&S, that percentage has grown from 38% in 2006 to 49% in 2020, outpacing the current national average of 41% at U.S. medical institutions. The number of women in positions of leadership and as recipients of endowed professorships also increased in this time frame.

“These numbers provide evidence of progress made not just towards increased gender representation, but towards true inclusion of women in all aspects of the institution, the most important measure of gender equity,” Taylor says. “We are energized by this success to continue to find new ways to support a more broadly inclusive faculty, one that is reflective of those whom we serve in the 21st century.”

A mentor, role model, woman of action

Carol Mason, PhD, is professor of pathology & cell biology, neuroscience, and ophthalmic science at VP&S and principal investigator and chair of interschool planning at Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute. Mason joined the faculty in 1987 and participated in some of the earliest peer mentoring programming organized by Taylor’s office, including early meetings of the Virginia Kneeland Frantz Society for Women.

“It was fantastic, because peer mentoring was something that was fairly new then,” Mason recalls. “I was able to meet people on the clinical faculty, as well as some basic scientists who were both junior and senior to me. It was really wonderful, and one of the beginning seeds of what Anne’s been doing all these years. I still have these conversations with some of those same women today, all of whom have been very successful in science.”

Mason later participated in the 2018 Dean’s Advisory Committee for Women Faculty, which joined the Dean’s Advisory Committee for Faculty Diversity and Inclusion to offer recommendations to build and expand programs, training, and engagement of the faculty to promote gender equity and diversity.

“Anne has convened so many of these committees, workshops, and peer mentoring groups in a very cool way,” Mason says. “She has a very focused and driven intent. She blends humor with forward thinking. A lot has been written about women in their ability to gain consensus and bring people along, and Anne does it skillfully.”

Mimi Shirasu-Hiza, PhD, associate professor of genetics & development, also participated in the 2018 Dean’s Advisory Committee. Shirasu-Hiza joined the faculty in late 2009 and initially struggled to acclimate to Columbia, especially as a mother with two small boys at home.

“Being a woman in science is hard. And it’s particularly hard when you’re starting a lab,” Shirasu-Hiza says. “It was immediately following the financial crisis, I had two young children at home, and the first year could have ended up being really traumatic. But at Columbia, I had this cohort of fabulous young female faculty from different departments who supported each other, and one of the ways that we found each other was through Anne Taylor and her Office of Academic Affairs.”

That community was a lifeline that helped Shirasu-Hiza overcome challenges, find new opportunities, and cope with the day-to-day challenges of being a woman in science. Today, as an accomplished scientist, Shirasu-Hiza credits Taylor for institutional change at VP&S.

“Systemic racism, systemic sexism—they’re just endemic to many institutions,” says Shirasu-Hiza. “The difference here in the last 10 years is that Anne Taylor really asks us, ‘What can we do about it?’ She asks, ‘What do you need? How can I deliver it to you?’ And then she does it. She’s a woman of action.”

She also credits Taylor for the advancement of mentoring and tenure-track advising, as well as regular check-ins and evaluations for junior faculty.

“What Anne Taylor is trying to do is make it part of the structure, ensuring that every junior person has a tenure-track advisory committee, that they have required face time with their department chair or the most senior person in their department, and then, eventually, go one step further and provide everybody with an evaluation,” she says. “She is trying to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to say, ‘What about my career? What about my needs? What about my resources?’”

Co-mentoring—mutual mentoring relationships among peers—has flourished under Taylor, with many of her mentees now mentoring each other. Marwah Abdalla, MD, assistant professor of medicine, joined the cardiology division in 2014. “I’ve known Dr. Taylor and have been one of her mentees for a long time now. I’ve been very fortunate and privileged to be within her division,” Abdalla says. “Anne has been great to me from day one as a fellow. She spends time with the fellows and is one of the clinical preceptors, so all of the fellows get to know her. She’s been an integral part of our education as fellows and beyond.

“Now as a faculty member, I’ve had the privilege of seeing more women being recruited into residency and fellowship across Columbia, and I get to also be a mentor. I’ve been very fortunate in that. As a woman, I’ve had so many female role models and people that I can go to as peers.”

Nathalie Moise and Marwah Abdalla
Co-mentors Nathalie Moise and Marwah Abdalla. Says Moise: “We give each other advice on how to navigate academia and some of its minefields, how to say no, or whether or not it makes sense to say yes to certain opportunities.” Photograph by Jörg Meyer.

One valued co-mentor for Abdalla is Nathalie Moise, MD, assistant professor of medicine. “The key part of this entire journey has been mentorship,” Moise says. “I’ve had so many collaborators here, some of whom I met through Dr. Taylor’s leadership and management course for women faculty, people I would have otherwise never met. That course helped launch a lot of relationships and I continue to work with those individuals. Marwah is just amazing as a co-mentor. We give each other advice on how to navigate academia and some of its minefields, how to say no, or whether or not it makes sense to say yes to certain opportunities.”

Even among a large network of supportive peers and co-mentors, Moise considers herself lucky to still count on Taylor as a mentor. She echoes the sentiments of almost anybody asked about Taylor and her value as an adviser, confidant, and friend: “You walk into her office and you feel like you’re at home. She’s mentoring a lot of people, but in every conversation, she always makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room.

“It’s rare to find someone so politically savvy, who truly understands everything that’s going on behind the scenes, and in that regard Anne is brilliant. She’s very honest, very protective, and she’s very invested in ensuring that women faculty excel. All those traits together are very, very rare, and she has made a huge difference in how I’ve navigated my career.”

Recognition for progress in gender equity and diversity should be shared, as Taylor is quick to say, and Shirasu-Hiza attributes progress to the community of women at VP&S who have made their voices heard. “The women here at Columbia are strong, they’re outspoken, they’re independent. We recognize each other. We see each other. I think that’s really important.”

Challenges ahead

Ask any woman faculty member about the future, and the challenges they list share common themes. First, they hope to see the intersectionality of race and gender addressed in future work, ensuring that equity is being promoted universally across both race and gender. That work continues as part of the 2018 Dean’s Advisory Committee for Faculty Diversity and Inclusion, which assesses the environment for diverse faculty, identifies gaps and opportunities, and makes recommendations to further support faculty success and satisfaction. The work also is ongoing through the medical center’s 2020 Task Force for Addressing Structural Racism.

A call for greater attention to the tenure track for women is also on the to-do list to improve support for women faculty. While the number of women faculty grew to 49% from 2006 to 2020, tenured women faculty have experienced slower growth in the same time frame, growing from 18% to 23%. The good news is that the data show that the pipeline for generating tenured faculty is robust: Women now account for 44% of tenure track faculty, and VP&S is strongly invested in the success of these and all tenure track faculty. “There is a slower rise in the increase in women appointed to tenure for several reasons. The tenure track for clinician and basic scientists is long with extensions for child care, and men have been in the majority for many years; however, the success rate for women who undergo tenure evaluation is equal to that of men. So it is key to continue to fill the tenure track pipeline with women,” Taylor says. “It is now a lag in time, not in opportunities.” VP&S encourages and supports the recruitment of tenure track/tenured women and has been successful in adding very strong tenured women scientists to the faculty. Their presence further encourages young women to see VP&S as a place to grow and develop their careers.

Finally, women faculty need better support of work/life balance. Women often are at the center of competing child care and elder care responsibilities that can hinder their professional lives. Though this work/life stress was well documented before 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought these disparities into stark relief for health care providers across the country. “Men’s productivity during the pandemic increased, but women’s productivity declined,” Taylor says. “COVID-19 set women back so significantly that there is now mounting concern that women could be set back to where they were in the early 1990s or 2000s.

“Integrating family life and professional life has always been a big challenge for women,” she adds. “It’s always been viewed as a personal problem that women just have to figure out. But after COVID, examination and solutions to this chronic problem from an institutional perspective have become imperative. We are looking at ways to support child care and elder care. Extensions in the tenure track have been helpful for women, but those in the non-tenure track still face delays and challenges integrating advancement given family obligations. The time has come for institutions to think creatively about that.”

In November, VP&S received a highly competitive grant from the Doris Duke Foundation, which will help identify ways the medical school can address this issue. The foundation’s COVID-19 Fund to Retain Clinical Scientists program offers grants of $550,000 over two years to recognize exemplary efforts at U.S. medical schools to strengthen policies, practices, and processes to better support the research productivity and retention of early-career faculty with family caregiving responsibilities.

At VP&S, the grant will be used to support early career physician-scientists, allowing them to better utilize time, compete more effectively for external funding in clinical and translational sciences, enhance their ability to prevent and treat diseases, and ultimately enhance their contributions to the next generation of leaders in clinical research.

“The NIH and AAMC prizes that recognized our progress in gender equity were wonderful and not about me, but about what we collectively at VP&S have accomplished,” says Taylor, “but the Doris Duke grant will allow the school as a whole to tackle one of the largest remaining issues holding back the progress of women faculty: Family caregiving responsibilities that compete with professional responsibilities create a crushing burden for women. It’s time that we meet this challenge head on and forever change the landscape for women who want both families and careers in medicine and science.”

5 women chairs at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons
Women chair five VP&S departments. From left: Lisa Kachnic, Radiation Oncology; Mary D’Alton, Obstetrics & Gynecology; Cory Abate-Shen, Molecular Pharmacology & Therapeutics; Rita Charon, Medical Humanities & Ethics; and Angela Mills, Emergency Medicine. Photograph by Jörg Meyer.

Recognizing one person’s impact

In November, Taylor received the AAMC’s 2021 Group on Women in Medicine and Science Leadership Award for an Individual. Since 1995, the AAMC has honored more than 30 individuals and organizations for their impact on professional development of women at the local, regional, or national level. The award recognizes contributions that promote women’s leadership, encourage and advocate for women in academic leadership, improve the educational and professional environment for sustaining women in academic medicine, or inspire women to be leaders.

“Dr. Anne Taylor meets all of those criteria for the award,” says Anil K. Rustgi, MD, interim executive vice president and dean of the Faculties of Health Sciences and Medicine. “As an advocate for women, she has promoted the recruitment, promotion, mentoring, and retention of women faculty at VP&S, all the while acting as a role model for women who combine medicine and academic leadership. This award deservedly honors Dr. Taylor’s accomplishments and also brings credit and honor to Columbia.”

In an October presentation titled “Women at VP&S: Courageous Past, Flourishing Present, Future Challenges,” Taylor reflected on how far VP&S has come in promoting women in medicine. She discussed Rosalie Slaughter Morton and the first six women to graduate from VP&S in 1921, representing a little over 5% of their graduating class. Observing the centennial of their historic graduation in 2021, Taylor contrasted their numbers with the graduating class of 2021, in which 82 women made up nearly 53% of their class.

In discussing present-day progress for women faculty at VP&S, Taylor thanked the many individuals who contributed to the institution’s recent success and accolades. “This is not about me, but we, and all we have accomplished. This work has been embraced by the dean’s office, the departments, and divisions. This is a good moment for us to stop and appreciate what we have achieved and also consider where we are yet to go,” says Taylor.

The school’s work is unfinished, but that doesn’t stop Taylor from encouraging women to consider careers in medicine and biomedical science. “Medicine is a wonderful, amazing, gratifying career. If I could do it for another 50 years, I would,” Taylor says. “I would encourage women of all races, ethnicities, and orientations to come into medicine. Women bring something special to the table—and we have the literature to prove it. Between family life and your career, being very strategic about how you portion your time is important. But be adventurous—and always step up on your own behalf and on behalf of other women.”


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This article was originally published in Columbia Medicine magazine.