​Overcoming gender imbalance starts with organizations, says panel of female healthcare leaders

By Sheri Block 

(L-R Moderator Linda Quattrin, Sophie Soklaridis, Catherine Wang, Danielle Rodin and Sharon Straus. Photo by Melissa Wu)

Overcoming barriers and gender imbalance in the health and research sectors needs to start with the organizations, not the women.

That was one of the main themes that came out of the first of two lively panel discussions Thursday night at JLABS in Toronto, presented in partnership with University Health Network (UHN) for International Women’s Day.

According to Sharon Straus, Director of the Knowledge Translation Program at St. Michael’s Hospital, women are evaluated differently than men every step of their careers.

“It’s not your project grant that’s getting assessed or research merit that’s getting assessed, it’s you as an individual,” says Straus, pointing to research recently published in The Lancet.

“It’s not about fixing the woman, it’s fixing the structure, the organization.” 

Not being evaluated the same way leads to gaps in career advancement between men and women, according to Sophie Soklaridis, an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine.

“When you think about promotions, raises, any kind of job changes, if that’s happening — and we know that it’s happening — that’s an imperative. We need to change the way we’re evaluating young women who are moving through the medical system or other systems and making sure we are fair, and we take gender bias out of those evaluations," says Soklaridis.

She adds that women are also less likely to go for promotions because they think they’re not ready. 

“We really need to be encouraging women because there’s always the imposter syndrome. There’s always this feeling you don’t have enough, you’re not smart enough, you’re not there yet, and I think that’s really critical.”

Catherine Wang, VP of Clinical Operations and Diagnostic Partnerships at UHN, also sat on the panel and says even though the senior management team is 50 per cent female at UHN, it drops to 30 per cent at the executive level. 

She suggests it may be because women are not even applying for these jobs, as there is an unconscious bias not just from males, but females as well. 

“I do think some of it is within us to have the confidence and the risk-taking adventure of really going for those kinds of jobs,” says Wang. 

Straus points to areas like networking, mentorship, formal search processes and transparency around decision making as places to start. She says good mentorship can increase the number of grants a woman receives, and lead to higher career satisfaction, faster career promotion and a willingness to stay at an institution.

“You can never underestimate the benefits of mentorship and I would say everyone should demand mentorship," says Straus.

She adds until we see these kinds of organizational changes, meaningful differences are not going to be seen.

Soklaridis agrees.

“There does need to be some education around theories of gender, race and class that we need to incorporate into our organizational structures … that will drive the culture change.”

Women may make up more than half of undergraduates majoring in science and technology in Canada, but the number drastically shrinks as women move up the career ranks with just 24 per cent of mid-level and 13 per cent of senior-level research positions filled by women, according to UNESCO. Around the world, only 28.8 per cent of scientists working in research and development are women.

Dr. Danielle Rodin, a Radiation Oncologist at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, says we need data around diversity in departments to help create some momentum for change.

“If you have data you can actually act on it … otherwise it’s very easy to say, 'We don’t have a gender balance problem in the biological sciences, we have 60 per cent of undergraduate students studying science, so what’s the problem?'” says Dr. Rodin.

“But if you hide behind the statistics and don’t dig a little bit deeper you wouldn’t find that. In my field of radiation oncology, less than a third are women and in the United States fewer than 10 per cent of academic department chairs are women.”

To learn more about International Women's Day and the #BalanceforBetter campaign theme click here