A prestigious award for the UC Davis Women in Medicine and Health Sciences program recognizes its impact on women’s careers and its potential as a national model

For nearly two decades, women with careers in the biomedical health sciences at UC Davis Health System have gained important support, mentorship and resources through the health system’s Women in Medicine and Health Sciences (WIMHS) program.

Now the organization that leads America's academic medicine community is spotlighting the program on the national stage. At its annual conference this fall, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) recognized the UC Davis WIMHS program and its impact with its prestigious Group on Women in Medicine and Science (GWIMS) Leadership Award.

Nominees for the annual award are evaluated for “extraordinary, innovative and far-reaching contributions that promote women’s leadership and accomplishments, encourage and advocate for the development of academic women leaders, and improve the educational and professional environment for sustaining women in academic medicine.” UC Davis Health System’s WIMHS was the singular program selected as a recipient this year.

The AAMC had previously highlighted WIMHS nationally in 2014 as well, when the nonprofit accepted an innovation article profiling the program in its peer-reviewed journal Academic Medicine.

“All the nominations received were outstanding, but the GWIMS Steering Committee felt the UC Davis WIMHS program stood out in its comprehensive approach to women's advancement and equity,” said Diana Lautenberger, the AAMC’s director for women in medicine and science. “They have a fully developed strategic plan driving efforts that range from recruitment to retention, and they perform data tracking over time.

“It’s a systematic approach to addressing gender equity at all levels — from the individual to the organization’s culture — with a proven track record for significant progress and achievement.”

WIMHS was founded in 2000 by Amparo Villablanca, M.D., UC Davis’ Frances Lazda Endowed Chair in Women’s Cardiovascular Medicine, and Lydia Pleotis Howell, M.D., chair of the university’s Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and a former associate dean of aca-demic affairs. Currently directed by Villablanca, the program works on multiple fronts to increase representation and help women faculty achieve their full academic potential.

That includes at UC Davis Health System, where the percentage of women faculty doubled within a decade of the program’s founding, for instance, and where in past measurements the institution has reached the top 10 percent of U.S. medical schools for its proportion of female professors. But WIMHS also takes a broader view as well, sharing and researching operational insights, tools and evidence-based best practices that are generalizable and informative to other academic medical centers nationwide.

“Programs like WIMHS help us to respond both individually and collaboratively to create an environment of acceptance, support and success for women in academic medicine,” said Julie Freischlag, M.D., vice chancellor for Human Health Sciences at UC Davis and dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine. “This is crucial work, and we’re thrilled that UC Davis WIMHS is receiving this kind of recognition and validation as a resource for the overall academic health community.”

Stemming attrition

Although women are increasingly represented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields at U.S. colleges and universities (including STEM leader UC Davis), and now make up nearly half of the nation’s medical and biological sciences doctoral students, U.S. women continue to be underrepresented as academic biomedical faculty. A landmark 2007 report by the Institute of Medicine, Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, examined the issue and pointed to the steady attrition of women throughout their careers, with only 20 percent of women in academia reaching full professor status.

UC Davis WIMHS leaders discussed the report in their 2014 Academic Medicine profile, noting that reasons for the historically higher attrition rate among women “are numerous and complex but importantly include unintentional bias and the challenges of balancing career and family life, which can slow career advancement and lead to departure from academic medicine.” Academic health centers, which traditionally require long hours and on-call duties as well as considerable teaching and research demands, face particular challenges in attracting and keeping faculty.

At UC Davis, the WIMHS strategic plan outlines five priorities for supporting women’s careers and increasing representation, including retention of early-career faculty, recruitment of mid- and late-career faculty, creating an institutional climate that helps promote women’s careers, creating paths to leadership, and conducting scholarship to help inform all of those efforts.

Villablanca, Howell and lead author Melissa Bauman, Ph.D., a prior WIMHS mentee, noted in their journal article that it’s difficult to determine if increases in female faculty over time at UC Davis Health System are directly related to the founding and growth of the WIMHS program. But department chairs cite the program as an important tool in recruitment and retention, they said, and new hires cite it as a reason for joining the faculty.

A number of overall factors have contributed to women’s advancement here, Villablanca said, including the promotion of a culture of diversity and inclusion, generous career-flexibility options and family-friendly policies, faculty development programs, and supportive leadership.

“We’re very proud that WIMHS has played an important role in increasing the number of women faculty and fostering a culture that supports the careers of women in health sciences,” said Villablanca, who also established the nation’s first women's heart program at UC Davis. “We’re also fully conscious that much work remains to be done overall to stem the attrition of women from academia, transform our culture to a more inclusive one, and create paths to leadership for women."

Multiple fronts

At its core the program is also a network, and community building occurs both in person and through virtual means.

A popular annual welcome reception introduces new women faculty to peers and health system leadership, and recognizes newly promoted female associate, full and distinguished professors. A lunchtime speaker series features leaders and mentors from around the nation, such as Drs. Vivian Pinn, the first woman director of the NIH Office on Research in Women’s Health, and Hannah Valantine, the agency’s first officer for scientific workforce diversity. And a website, blog and social media promote networking and provide a clearinghouse for information on family-friendly and career-flexibility policies, as well as personal- and career-development opportunities for women.

Villablanca and Howell themselves have helped substantiate the benefit of such policies, earning a $1.27 million National Institutes of Health grant in 2009 to determine whether they can have positive outcomes on the career satisfaction of women faculty in medicine, on their academic advancement, or both. Their study found a high level of support for career-flexibility policies among both sexes and across generations among UC Davis School of Medicine faculty (as well as multiple barriers to policy use they are working to address). It was ultimately recognized by a subsequent Innovation Award from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the American Council on Education, for work to develop an academic compensation plan tookit and address face-time bias for those utilizing flexibility options.

WIMHS also works to train future leaders by sharing faculty- and professional-development resources, conducting mentorship and leadership clinics, and offering an 18-month competitive mentored leadership development experience with WIMHS for early- and mid-career faculty. To reach women as early as possible in their career paths, the program also played a central role in restarting the school of medicine’s student chapter of the American Medical Women's Association, which it helps to support through joint activities.“WIMHS provides this amazing network that you step into, and it can morph into whatever you want it to be,” said Ulfat Shaikh, M.D., M.P.H., M.S., a faculty pediatrician and director for health care quality at UC Davis School of Medicine who is the 2015–16 WIMHS Career Development Scholar, and was recently promoted to professor and selected for a statewide leadership program. “It’s really flexible — you can get as involved as you want to, and decide for yourself where in your career you are and what kind of opportunities you want to take advantage of. It’s been really valuable to me both professionally and personally.”

Recognizing leadership

Recognizing women leaders and accomplishments is another facet of the program. In 2008 the program published Under the Plane Tree, a book of vignettes that pays tribute to the pioneering women faculty at the UC Davis School of Medicine by sharing their stories and lessons for the benefit of future generations.

A recent addition was the WIMHS Full Professor Pin a tradition brought to UC Davis by Julie Freischlag, vice chancellor for Human Health Sciences at UC Davis and dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine. The 2013 event included a special reception and panel discussion honoring and recognizing all 171 women who had attained the rank of full professor at UC Davis’ Schools of Health. Each professor received a custom-designed lapel pin, with the number corresponding to the order in which they became full professors engraved on the pin.

Numbering the pins to reflect the succession of women faculty to full professor brings visibility to the growing number of women achieving this rank, Howell said, and hopefully inspires others to gain their own number.

“Many women faculty have commented on how meaningful it was to receive this pin,” she said. “And many — including me — were prompted to reflect and remember their own challenging path,and the camaraderie and support of the women and men who helped them achieve this important measure of success.

“We do have a strong support network for women here, and a history and tradition of women faculty who nurture the next generation. I think this is a unique part of our brand as a school on a national basis, and a tremendous source of pride in that respect.”

WIMHS continues to innovate. Last year, Villablanca, with input from the WIMHS advisory council, developed and launched a UC-wide Health Sciences Leadership Conference themed around diversity and inclusion excellence. The 2017 conference will be held in May with a theme of leadership, health and wellness.

Read more:

The Women in Medicine and Health Science Program: An Innovative Initiative to Support Female Faculty at the University of California Davis School of Medicine. Academic Medicine online, July 2014. Available in PDF form on the UC Davis WIMHS website at ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/wimhs.