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Department of Medicine Taps Margaret Wierman, MD for Gender Equity Initiative

Faculty-centric effort aims to discover and implement high-impact gender equity improvements.

Women make up almost half of students entering medical schools in the U.S., and account for almost 40% of med school faculty, but make up just 16% of med school deans and 15% of department chairs. Beyond these numbers, women faculty members face significant barriers in accessing mentorship and research support, and often face unconscious bias in hiring, salary and promotion decisions.

This fall, the Department of Medicine began formulating a Strategic Initiative on Gender Equity, designed to identify and jump-start initiatives to support gender equity at all levels throughout the department. To lead this initiative, department chair David A. Schwartz, MD approached Margaret Wierman, MD, a professor in the department's Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes and a past president of Women in Endocrinology, an organization devoted to promoting the professional development and advancement of women in the field of endocrinology.

"Dr. Wierman is an ideal person to lead this effort," says Schwartz. "She has a long history of working to advance the interests of women in academic medicine, both by mentoring individual women faculty members and by leading large-scale organizational efforts that have made a major impact on the careers of women in her field. This is an extremely important initiative – while we've improved the salary concerns for many of our faculty, we've only begun to understand and address the issue of gender inequity. All of our programs will benefit by removing any unintentional barriers that limit career development."

Wierman first spent some time reviewing the resources already available to women faculty through the department, the CU School of Medicine and the CU campus/system, as well as reviewing research on gender equity in academic medical centers and studying initiatives underway at other institutions.

As a next step, Wierman is organizing a series of professionally-facilitated focus groups with departmental faculty. "Our objective for these focus groups will be to identify solutions that will be effective here in our department, with our faculty. Lots of institutions are doing work in this area, and it's mostly being done at the school or college level, so there's an opportunity here for our department to be a leader in thinking locally and finding ways to enhance our gender equity right here in the department."

The department has already taken one crucial step in this direction, when three years ago it began an annual year-in-rank salary analysis using Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) benchmarks to identify potential salary inequities, which are then addressed every six months with divisional leadership.

But Wierman notes that data from multiple sources, including the faculty climate survey recently conducted by the CU School of Medicine, have consistently identified gender equity as an area of concern within the department. "We're already far beyond the question of whether this is an issue – it is. We're going to use these focus groups to look at what others are doing, generate new ideas, and find out how to implement faculty-derived, faculty-driven solutions that are responsive to our own department."

Wierman is working with CU Denver's Evaluation Center to design a series of sessions, each of which will be led by a professional facilitator. In particular, she hopes to identify solutions that can be systematically integrated into departmental DOM practices, from recruitment and orientation to awards and programs to promotion and tenure. Wierman will begin recruiting participants for the sessions in October, and hopes to be able to present the findings to departmental leadership in mid-winter, and create one-, three- and five-year plans to be implemented by the department's division heads and vice chairs.

"I'm committed to our department being one of the best in the country, and we can't get there without getting this right," says Wierman. "This is an area where we can be a leader."