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How The Dean Of Duke’s Medical School Is Breaking Down “Invisible” Gender Barriers

Since Dr. Nancy Andrews’s appointment to lead a top-10 medical research school, women in medicine have cleared hurdles, but still face more.

How The Dean Of Duke’s Medical School Is Breaking Down “Invisible” Gender Barriers
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When Dr. Nancy Andrews interviewed for the position of dean at the Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina, she didn’t give much thought to her gender.

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As the communications team began preparing a news release about her taking over the role on October 1, 2007, they realized that she was the first woman to lead a top-10 research-intensive medical school. That fact got a great deal of play in the media.

“It really caught on and surprised me at how much attention it got, especially in 2007,” she says.

While she wasn’t aware of it before she took the position, she says a number of people told her afterward that Duke had a reputation for being “a very macho place,” sometimes referred to as “the Duke Marines,” she says. Few thought they would hire a woman as medical school dean.

But the noise didn’t stop Andrews from moving forward with her vision. Duke had always been known for educating leaders. She wanted to capitalize on the existing strengths, including its nimble, collaborative culture to find new ways to approach big problems by working with various areas of the university, and to continue Duke’s 84-year tradition as a top medical school. Here’s how she accomplished that:

Fighting Invisible Barriers

Andrews is interested in helping women get over some of the “invisible” challenges and bias that still exist in the medical world. While women have very similar opportunities when they’re students or just out of school as residents or post-doctoral fellows, disadvantages compile as they move up the faculty ranks, she says.

“[They] are probably unintended, but [women deal with] a little less lab space, less secretarial support, less academic time, tend to compound, and less salary in some cases,” she says. “So, the baseline is lower and it’s a little bit less at each step, so going higher and higher, those disadvantages can add up to be pretty substantial.”

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With a sharp eye for quashing inequities and promoting diversity, Andrews gives women, people of color, and people from other underrepresented groups spots on important committees, such as the budget committee, instead of the committee tasked with evaluating on-campus day-care requirements. They have protected time to develop their careers, and she encourages them to cultivate advocates in their department chairs and colleagues who can put their names up for awards or opportunities.

Andrews supports the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine, a leadership organization in the medical field, and urges women in the medical school to attend meetings of women leaders on campus. She also recognizes the importance of mentoring and sponsorship relationships within in the department. With such interaction, senior leaders are more likely to think of women to recommend for prizes, important talks, or collaborations, which may not happen naturally, she says. She adds that the medical school hasn’t solved equality issues entirely, but they’re actively working on it.

Supporting Inclusion in Research

Looking at women’s medicine differently is also an area of interest for Andrews, who has followed the recent movement include women in medical studies, as more evidence indicates that some medicines work differently in men and women. She sees this as important–and a potential boon to both treatments and pharmaceutical companies.

“In the long run, it’s going to be more profitable for pharmaceutical companies,” she says. “I think that very likely, the days of ‘treat everybody with blockbuster drugs’ is probably gone.”

Looking Back

Even after seven years in this role, Andrews isn’t satisfied with the state of women leaders in medicine. While some condemn noting “women leaders” instead of just “leaders,” Andrews says it’s still important to celebrate when a woman reaches a high level in certain positions. While it may not be news when a woman is appointed dean of a well-respected school of education, seeing accomplished women on corporate boards, academic medicine, or engineering is still too rare, she says. Andrews admits she had expected more progress over her 35 years in the medical field.

“I think that there has been very clear progress, but we have a long way to go,” she says. “The path is going upward, but not as steeply as I’d like to see it.”

About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and web sites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books.

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