A chat with Prof Ann Brown

A Chat with Professor Ann Brown

Vice-Dean for Faculty

Duke University Medical School, North Carolina – USA

Progression of Women in STEMM* Careers at Duke since the Duke women’s Initiative in 2003


* Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine

In May 2002 the President of Duke University, Dr. Nannerl O. Keohane, launched the Duke Women’s Initiative. This was an exercise designed to assess the status of women at all levels across the Duke University system. The Duke Women’s Initiative Report published one year later in 2003 summarised the findings of this assessment and made recommendations for changes designed to ameliorate the situation in areas where deficiencies were identified.


As the School of Molecular, Genetic and Population Health Sciences and the School of Clinical Sciences of the University of Edinburgh jointly embarked on a similar self assessment exercise, we thought it might be useful to consult with Duke University to determine what lessons had been learned, what progress had been made and which innovations they had found particularly effective in the 10 years since the publication of the Duke Women’s Initiative Report.


Questions Explored

1.      What are the current statistics on the percentage of women in graduate school versus the percentage of female full professors at Duke, compared to in 2003when the Duke Women’s Initiative Report was published?

Today 46% of new matriculants at Duke University graduate school are female. Within the medical school it’s 50% and has been for a while. In the medical school 4% of full professors are female. So there is still a big gap. Since 2003, the number of female matriculants has increased but the number of female full professors has not increased significantly.



2.      Do you have any specific recommendations regarding recruitment (how to promote gender equality through recruitment processes) and retention (since we experience a drop off from postgrad onwards)?

Means of addressing the gender disparity among students include:

a.      Pipeline programs: These help build up a strong and robust cadre of applicants.

b.      Programs that get minorities,  little girls and young women interested in science (and particularly engineering) are important in increasing the number of female and minority matriculants

It’s important to examine the situation at your institution. At Duke we’re generally good at recruiting female faculty but the gender gap widens with time. It’s important to recruit women and minorities but it’s just as important to focus on what happens once they arrive. What happens to their salary, resources and space allocation over time compared to a majority group.

Means of addressing the gender disparity among faculty at the recruitment stage include:

a.      Ensuring that the institution has good policies in place that signal to applicants that this is a supportive environment. E.g. (i) a flexible work arrangement policy to signal that the institution cares about work/life balance, (ii) a tenure clock extension policy that allows faculty to slow down the tenure clock (for example for childbirth, adoption etc.) in negotiation with their chair. Alongside this, also ensuring that the Department Chairs understand the tenure clock extension policy and the business mangers know how to apply it (iii) job sharing policies: paying a partial salary but full benefits to both recruits (iv) various options for partner hires

b.      Ensuring recruits, as part of the application processs, get a chance to meet with University officials who are outside of the recruitment process but nevertheless influential in determining the work environment. At Duke, applicants meet with the Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Faculty Diversity, Nancy Allen, and have a chance to chat about the policies that are in place at Duke, in a conversation that is not part of the hiring process. It allows candidates to ask questions about Duke and the position that they might not feel comfortable addressing within the interview/hiring process. For example, the Vice Provost might discuss Duke’s policy on partner hires.

c.      Visiting recruits at their home institution; an approach that is used in recruiting top athletes, which Christina Johnson, the former Dean of Engineering pioneered at Duke. Using this strategy she was able to dramatically increase the number of female faculty in Engineering. This not only signals that the institution is strongly interested in the candidate, but also allows the recruiter to assess how the recruit interacts with their staff and others and  how the candidate (male or female) fits into their home environment. It’s not necessarily used a lot at Duke these days, but Dr. Johnson used it to good effect in the early 2000’s

d.      Proactively approaching women for leadership positions. Be aware that many women may not desire leadership positions and may have very good reasons for this, or may feel that they are not qualified, or may feel that moving would not be a good idea. You can suggest visiting a potential candidate to discuss the upcoming position with them rather than waiting for them to put themselves forward.

e.      Unconscious bias training for search committees

f.       Duke’s Advantages for Faculty (published as both a brochure and website) which highlights the advantages of working at Duke. This includes a discourse on 2-partner hires. http://provost.duke.edu/faculty/

g.      Having and highlighting good faculty training programs (e.g. Duke LEADER program)which show the University’s commitment to their faculty. http://medschool.duke.edu/faculty/office-faculty-development/LEADER

Means of addressing gender disparity in faculty retention include:

a.      Implementing a Professionalism Initiative which states that we believe in treating each other with respect and dignity and we expect people to speak up if this is not happening. The Initiative at Duke includes a Professionalism Council which is a Dean’s Advisory Committee (issues are referred from the Dean); it’s a peer advisory council and it reviews issues and makes suggestions to the Dean for sanctions etc. It also provides a means for looking at concerns that fall through the catchment of other policies e.g. bullying behaviour, questionable research conduct (which doesn’t quite meet the definition for scientific misconduct). It may also arrange for and refer individuals for training on ‘Difficult Conversations’ etc. to help them address issues with others in the workplace.

The Duke Medical School Professionalism statement can be found at:


b.      Having women and female friendly individuals in the higher echelons (e.g. Chairs and Deans) changes the dynamic of discussion, e.g. concern about work-life balance, and there seems to be a trickledown effect.

c.      Equal access to training (e.g. professional development programs/group mentoring), like the Duke LEADER program which is designed to help faculty be successful in their careers.



3.      Is diversity and unconscious bias training mandatory at Duke? If so, has this been effective in addressing inequities in the student or staff body?

There is a recently appointed position at Duke, the Chief Diversity Officer. So at the moment there is no requirement, but the CDO meets with every search committee to discuss unconscious bias and how to try to remove it from the search process. For example, it is recommended that every female and minority candidate is evaluated and candidates should not be rejected outright at the beginning of the process. Every reasonable candidate gets a full review. This avoids the situation where a candidate might be unfairly rejected at the beginning because others think ‘no one will get along with a woman in that position’. Members of search committees are given several of the resources listed below.

Recommendations for reading on unconscious bias included:

a.      Article on letters of recommendation: Exploring the color of glass: letters of

recommendation for female and male medical faculty Frances Trix and Carolyn Psenka, Discourse and Society, Vol 14(2): 191–220

b.      Brochure from University of Wisconsin ADVANCE program funded by National Science Foundation to increase number of women in scientific careers http://wiseli.engr.wisc.edu/advance.php   (look under the ‘Resources’ link)

c.      Harvard website: implicit bias testing https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/

d.      Book:  Why So Slow?: Advancement of Women by Virginia Valian



4.      Does Duke have any policy on addressing the ‘two body problem’ when recruiting (i.e. where partners who both work in STEMM in academia have the problem of finding two good jobs in a particular locale)?

Duke addresses partner hires in its document, Duke’s Advantages for Faculty (brochure and website)

a.      Duke will work with candidates in an attempt to find positions for partners within the Duke System

b.      Duke has an agreement with nearby academic institutions to provide initial startup funds (2 years) for partner hires if there is a suitable position available at the other institution

c.      The dual recruitment is available to both males and females, both junior and senior faculty



5.      In your opinion, what are some initiatives that have made the biggest difference to helping women leave the sticky floor and break through the glass ceiling in STEMM careers at Duke?

a.      The Duke Women’s Initiative and the focus groups that were conducted as part of it were very powerful in terms of starting the dialogue about women’s experiences and determining what women wanted/needed

b.      Accessible childcare close to their workplace

c.      The Baldwin Scholars program which seeks to empower  female students on the Duke campus (similar to WILL at University of Richmond)



6.      Are you aware of any effective, low budget means of addressing gender equality issues in STEMM in academia?

a.      Focus groups: e.g. comprising  junior women, junior men, senior women, senior men. Focus groups take time, but not necessarily a lot of money. Focus groups help validate how people feel and give very useful information about people’s experiences.

Questions could include:

                                          i.     How would you describe the climate for professional development?

                                         ii.     How would you describe the climate for diversity?

                                        iii.     How do you manage work life balance?

b.      Visiting professors can help raise the visibility of a particular topic

c.      Professional development mentorship series. Topics could include:

                                          i.     How to write a compelling grant

                                         ii.     How to get promoted



7.      At Duke, what forms of training are offered for early career researchers? In your opinion is this training well subscribed?

a.      Grant writing (specific aims workshops)

b.      Management/lab management

c.      Leadership development for researchers (particularly junior faculty). It includes leadership skills, communication skills, Meyers Briggs and other personality typing etc.

d.      Writing course (George Gopen course)

These courses are usually over-subscribed (particularly by graduate students and post-docs)



8.      Do you have any advice for people starting mentorship programmes?

a.      Group mentorship can work well in terms of making key information democratically and readily accessible (via professional development programs, e.g. at lunchtimes) and not dependent on finding a good 1-to-1 match with someone else or dependent on the mentor having been well informed and having up-to-date information

b.      Traditional mentoring is still important (e.g. peer mentorship and first year faculty mentoring; this could be buddy or group mentoring)



9.      In your opinion, how long does it take before one sees a ‘change in culture’ at an institution?

Do you feel that this has occurred at Duke? If so, was it a slow steady change or an overnight sensation? How would one quantify/measure such a change?

At Duke, there was an immediate effect of ending the silence on women’s issues following the Women’s Initiative. Change in terms of having more women in leadership positions was slower (it took years).Amongst students, the establishment of the Baldwin Scholars program slowly influenced a change in culture.



10.   In your opinion, how best does one combine a clinical career with an academic research one? Many clinicians here do not pursue academic careers.

Focus groups would help you determine why many female clinicians are not choosing to pursue academic careers at your institution. Some might not be interested in an academic career if it doesn’t improve their salary. They might not see the advantage of being promoted to an academic post and some encouragement, perhaps through a regular departmental review, may help. You can take the opportunity during the review to provide encouragement and point out the advantages such as serving on committees (raised status/visibility) and helping guide the University’s direction.



11.   Sheryl Sandberg, (COO of Facebook and mother of 2) suggests that women should “lean into” career success early on and strive for leadership. Is this concept is something that you have experienced and is female leadership actively and consciously promoted at Duke?

This is not something I’m familiar with as I haven’t read her book. However, men often don’t hold themselves back thinking that they aren’t good enough or qualified enough. So if Sandberg is suggesting that women should question their decision to wait to pursue leadership positions, then I would agree with her.