Hospital's gender gap hasn't improved in 15 years

A Toronto teaching hospital is in danger of losing bright, creative women if its gender gap is not addressed, a new study suggests.

Mentorship considered key to retain more women

Geriatrician Dr. Sharon Straus is a researcher at Toronto's St. Michael's hospital. She has studied the gender gap in teaching hospitals in Canada. (St. Michael's Hospital)

A Toronto teaching hospital is in danger of losing bright, creative women if its major and persistent gender gap is not addressed, a new study suggests.

Dr. Sharon Straus is a clinician and scientist who conducts research at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto. Straus and her graduate students noticed there were few female scientists at the University of Toronto and decided to dig into the data.

For 25 years, women have outnumbered men at the undergraduate level and junior faculty levels in Canada, but not at senior levels.

For instance, the Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada said that in 2014,  nearly 57 per cent of first-year students who enrolled in Canadian faculties of medicine were women.

Similar issues have been reported by the Council of Canadian Academies and by researchers in the U.S., UK and Europe.

"If we don't reflect our population I think that we're losing a tremendous segment of our population that would bring creativity and innovation to research," Straus said in an interview.

In 2014, there were 206 scientists at St. Michael's research institute. Of these, 30 per cent were women and 70 per cent were men, Straus and her co-authors reported in today's issue of CMAJ Open.

"It was surprising to see that the gap really hadn't changed at all over the last 15 years," Straus said.

The researchers also conducted interviews with current and past scientists at the hospital to look for strategies to promote gender equity.

Those interviewed raised recruitment trends, institutional support and lack of mentorship and role models as factors.

For instance, a male scientist early in his career said if he was female he wouldn't have been "invited out for a beer," a form of informal opportunity. It can offer a chance to get to know someone in a leadership position and to hear about job openings.

Since the study was commissioned, the hospital will take steps including:

  • Implementing a more transparent recruitment and hiring process with formal search committees.
  • Instructing those hiring to not penalize for gaps in resumes that might be parental leaves.
  • Switching meeting times to when they are convenient for as many participants as possible.
  • Setting up a mentorship process.

The largest gap that the researchers identified was that 95 per cent of scientists conducting basic laboratory research —such as examining cells and molecules to better understand the causes and mechanisms of disease — were men.

It's important for all Canadians to see academics as a valuable career, Straus said.

Missed mentorship and career opportunities 

While the study only looked at St. Michael's, the gender gap is common throughout fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine.  

What's more, the percentage of women holding Canada Research Chairs hasn't changed much over the duration of the program, Straus said.

Given how research suggests that mentorship affects an individual's ability to be productive, receive grants, have protected time to focus on scholarly work and to be promoted faster, Straus is an advocate for access to strong mentors.

Straus, a geriatrician, trained in the UK under McMaster's Dr. David Sackett ,whom she called a "fantastic mentor." Sackett died in 2015 and one of his last projects with Straus was a book on how to be an effective mentor and mentee.

Straus would like to see Canadian institutes follow the lead of the Swan initiative in the UK. Introduced by Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, the project aims to address retention and progression of women in academic careers in science and technology by requiring medical schools to address the gender gap to obtain funding. 

A profile of physicians in Canada in 2015 reflects a gender gap. (Canadian Institute for Health Information)

With files from CBC's Amina Zafar