Bridging the Gap Series : May 2021

Bridging the Gap: Women’s equity

Introduction from Vice Chancellor Steve Goldstein

The good news is that women in healthcare are advancing in their fields and in their careers at a greater rate than in the past and when compared with other industries. However, only a third of senior healthcare roles are filled by women, and only 5 percent are women of color, according to a Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey and Elevation to leadership is essential both to providing role models for women at entry level and all positions, and to reflect and meet the needs of the patients we serve and the students we teach.

Here, at UCI Health Affairs, we are committed to equity in every aspect of our organization and we recognize that despite headway, this is a work-in-process that requires our ongoing attention within our walls and as equity advocates for our patients.

In this contribution to the UCI Health Affairs Bridging the Gap series that focuses on health equity, we explore the pervasive biases and barriers women face in biomedical research and other health professions and one effort we are making to affect change.

Assistant Professor Dr. Dorota Skowronska-Krawczyk and Assistant Director Dziyana Aydin, of the UC, Irvine Center for Translational Vision Research at the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute, recently founded the Committee of Women In Vision Research and in this essay they describe their work to expand gender equity in the field of ophthalmology and beyond, providing a model for action and “allyship” to produce meaningful steps toward greater equality in medical training and practice.

Through the committee, Skowronska-Krawczyk and Aydin seek to raise the visibility of diverse women scientists and healthcare professionals, empower women to achieve their aspirations, and to ensure the voices and views of women are represented at all levels in the world of ophthalmology. It is imperative that we continue to look for opportunities for inclusion and equity. Only in this way can we achieve our full potential as individuals, as communities and as a society.

Women’s Equity

By Dr. Dorota Skowronska-Krawczyk, Assistant Professor, and Dziyana Aydin, Assistant Director, UCI Center for Translational Vision Research

In 1849, after much challenge and adversity, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in the United States to earn a medical degree. Dr. Blackwell went on to open a hospital and a medical college for women, and inspire others, including her sister, to pursue a career in medicine. It would take more than 100 years for women to number a mere 10 percent of U.S. physicians. And today, nearly two centuries after Dr. Blackwell’s achievement, just 36% of physicians in the U.S. are female, according to the American Medical Association.

Overall, women and men currently enter medical fields at similar rates. In fact, women make up more than 70% of healthcare personnel overall. But, because they are less visible, women are often paid far less, have a harder time securing grants or institutional research funding, and experience greater difficulty finding career sponsors or mentors. The groundbreaking work of women physicians and scientists often goes unrecognized. Medical conference delegates and award lists remain predominantly male, including in the field of ophthalmology. One example: The Ophthalmologist’s 2020 Power List – a ranking of the 100 most influential people in the field of ophthalmology – included just 17 women, up from only nine in 2016. While the increase in representation is positive, it is still far out of sync with the needs of ophthalmology.

Recognizing that inherent lack of diversity, The Ophthalmologist did something completely different this year. The publication focused its 2021 Power List on the top 50 women in ophthalmology. That list, just published, reveals the tremendous contributions of women to the field, and how much of a difference can be made when we are willing to see and correct how we ourselves may be unconsciously contributing to inequitable perceptions and behaviors. One of our own is on that list, Dr. Marjan Farid, UCI professor of Ophthalmology and director of Cornea, Cataract, and Refractive Surgery, who mentors both her male and female colleagues, and says, “When I am able to effectively pass on my skills and knowledge to another surgeon, who will then be able to provide care for so many, I am the proudest.”

Ensuring that women in ophthalmology are seen, valued and have access to equal opportunities means that more women feel encouraged to enter and stay in the field – which may also help to address the Association of American Medical Colleges’ projected shortage of physicians, including ophthalmologists, by as early as 2025. The number of female ophthalmologist faculty members at UCI’s Gavin Herbert Eye Institute has nearly doubled in the past five years, from six out of 19 total in 2016, to 11 women out of 30 ophthalmologists today. In addition, three of the five optometrists on staff are women.

Above: Researchers with the UCI Center for Translational Vision

And that is where our focus must be – to support and encourage current and aspiring female ophthalmologists. By creating the Committee for Women in Vision Research we want to increase the number of female speakers at conferences and on expert panels, help to develop networks of support, mentorship, collaboration and leadership to enhance the profiles and careers of women and facilitate access to research opportunities for female vision scientists.

Allyship is critical to our success, and we have discovered allies for the advancement of women in vision research across UCI as we brought the committee to life. From the very beginning, Dr. Baruch Kuppermann, Chair of the Department of Ophthalmology and Director of the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute has supported our cause, dedicating an issue of “Shine the Light,” the Institute’s newsletter, to women – which gave us the opportunity to spotlight the committee. Dr. Krzysztof Palczewski, the center’s director and Donald Bren Professor, has been instrumental in our committee’s work since its inception. This collaboration has been echoed by the entire School of Medicine (SOM), including Dr. Sumit Garg, Vice Chair of Clinical Ophthalmology, who serves on our leadership team and has spearheaded allyship efforts; Dr. Nimisha Parekh, Associate Dean of Faculty Development, whose team is setting up a Women in Medicine group; Dr. Marguerite Bonous-Hammarth, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, who supports our networking efforts with resources and ideas; and SOM Equity Advisors, who encourage our networking efforts.

The Committee is still new, but is already helping to further empower women and engage allies at the Center for Translational Vision Research and beyond. Here are some of the exciting programs we have already put into place:

  • We have established six mentors and plan to expand the program, including adding two affiliated faculty from the UC San Diego School of Medicine.
  • We seek to educate and involve more students and faculty through an upcoming information session on mentorship, coaching, sponsorship and allyship, and we plan to run a mentor training session in the fall.
  • We are creating an SOM-wide network of faculty and students, and our lecture series and mentor training programs are open to the entire SOM.
  • We are building a network of women researchers and clinicians in ophthalmology to help bring visibility to women in the field across the country, which will in turn help elevate them as experts in their domains and increase opportunities to share their expertise via presentations, lectures, peer reviews and more to support equality in our field.
  • We recently held a screening of the film, “Picture a Scientist,” followed by a panel discussion featuring women from our own faculty – which tells the story of three women in science who share the challenges they faced as they advanced their careers, and how they believe science can become more inclusive and equitable.
  • Later this fall, we will launch a Brilliant Women Series to highlight the personal stories and experiences of successful women, with the goal of inspiring further action.

We are doing all of this because despite the progress that has been made toward gender equality in medicine so far, there is still a long way to go. Supporting women in the field today means helping to ensure that we have more women in the field tomorrow. Bringing different perspectives to the table allows us to advance research and medicine, deliver care, explore innovation and elevate talent. The result is deeper insights, better outcomes and greater opportunity for all.

To learn more about the UCI Center for Translational Vision Research and its Committee of Women in Vision Research, please visit our website.

About the Series

Vice Chancellor Goldstein

Started in June 2020, Bridging the Gap is a series curated by Vice Chancellor Steve Goldstein, as a way to examine and share our work in closing all gaps to achieve health equity through awareness, understanding, compassion and action. You can also receive the series in your inbox by subscribing to the newsletter.

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