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School of Medicine initiatives to place more women into top academic positions triumphed this fall with the addition of Ophthalmology chairwoman Joan O’Brien. And with five more department chair spots on the market, Penn Med’s commitment to enhancing faculty diversity is coming into play.

“It’s one of our number one missions to have a diverse faculty,” Penn Med Executive Director of Faculty Affairs Victoria Mulhern said. “It’s something we’re involved with every day.”

Penn Med Dean Arthur Rubenstein is the driving force behind many of the initiatives to diversify the faculty, particularly by placing more women into top positions. Of Rubenstein’s six vice chairs, two are female. Four of the Penn Med Executive Directors are women, and four more hold vice president and senior vice president positions.

Although these numbers may seem low, women in higher academic positions can be hard to come by.

“Part of the problem with being a female chair is that the hours are very long. It’s a lot of responsibility, and women with young children would not find it appealing at all,” Vice Dean for Faculty and Resident Affairs Lisa Bellini said.

Rubenstein agreed, saying, “There’s just a smaller pool size of diverse individuals for these positions.”

However, search committees remain steadfast in their commitment to finding female candidates.

“I think there are many talented women out there who wouldn’t necessarily be identified [as candidates], and we’re giving them a chance to compete,” Bellini said.

And once hired, these women will not be left without guidance. Penn Med’s FOCUS program specifically supports women’s advancement in academic medicine, and the initiative received an NIH Grant this month to improve quality of life for Penn Med female faculty members.

“The ultimate goal is to create an environment where women can succeed fully in their careers, thus maximizing their contributions to academic medicine and improving the workplace for all faculty, both men and women,” Stephanie Abbuhl, executive director of FOCUS wrote in an e-mail.

But why is it so important to get women into higher academic positions, or to diversify faculty members at all? Rubenstein cited the importance of providing all students with faculty members with whom they can identify and placed emphasis on the educational value of a diverse staff.

“There’s a great commitment in Penn Med to diversify leadership in order to provide all students with role models they can identify with and to enhance the quality of their educational experience,” he said.

Co-director of both Women’s Studies and the Alice Paul Center for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality Demie Kurz added, “Having few women in leadership positions also communicates the message that this field is just for men.”

“It’s important that leadership in any institution be representative of the people it serves,” she added.

For search committees, this initiative begins with the members themselves, who are chosen by the dean and the committee chairperson, and selected “so they will have a sensitivity to all individuals,” Rubenstein said.

“If you have a committee made of white males, they will look at white male candidates, even if it’s not deliberate,” Rubenstein continued.

Search committees are now in the process of finding new chairpersons for the Neurology, Neuroscience, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Dermatology and Genetics Departments, and are considering “candidates that are broadly representative,” Bellini said.

“Now elementary school, middle school and college students will see professional possibilities that they can realistically pursue,” Kurz said.

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