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Dr. Iris Litt, pioneer of gender and medical research, honored at Clayman Institute

Mar 17 2014

You might take for granted that your doctor considers your gender and sex when assessing your health or recommending treatments. But as recently as twenty-five years ago, medical research and health care decisions were rarely viewed through the lens of gender. Iris Litt, M.D. pediatric physician and former director of the Clayman Institute, is a living example that gender-specific medical treatment is a relatively new phenomenon. Even Litt, a pioneer in research on the health of women and girls, did not always see herself as a conducting gender-based research.

As the director of Stanford’s Clayman Institute (then the Institute for Research on Women and Gender) from 1990-1997, Litt, one of the founders of the field of adolescent medicine, became concerned about the absence of information about women’s health and reshaped interdisciplinary scholarship.  Through studying what she calls the “problems that have arisen in the process of taking care of people,” Litt became a leader of interdisciplinary gender research. She contends that interdisciplinarity is the key to solving gender disparities in health care and that such a framework can provide solutions that will change the behaviors of both doctors and patients. Because of her efforts and that of other Stanford colleagues, the study of women’s health has become what she calls a “bi-directional experience” on Stanford’s campus, uniting scholars of medicine and the humanities and social sciences.

Litt forges new paths for gender and health care at Stanford

Litt did not always think of herself as a gender scholar and was surprised when former director, Myra Strober and Diane Middlebrook, founder of Feminist Studies (now Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies) at Stanford, asked her to head the Clayman Institute in 1990. Initially, she did not see the connection between her own work with teenagers and the Clayman’s mission. Only after careful consideration did Litt realize that, while she always thought of herself as an adolescent medicine physician, all of her research focused specifically on adolescent women.

Litt took the helm at the Clayman at a time when the importance of women’s health was beginning to capture the attention of lawmakers and researchers, but much remained to be done. In 1988, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) earmarked only 13% of their budget for research on women’s health, women were systematically excluded from prescription drug trials, and the Congressional Women’s Caucus—a significant supporter of women’s health research—was defunded. However, due to mounting pressure, the NIH created the Office of Research on Women’s Health in 1990 and Congress passed the Women’s Health Equity Act in 1996.

At Clayman, Litt built bridges between Stanford’s individual schools and institutes. She fostered women’s leadership on campus and spurred interdisciplinary research across the university. During her tenure, Litt developed interdisciplinary forums to discuss the relationship among sex, gender, and medical research.She also began a lecture series for undergraduates and faculty on women’s health and published extensively on the health disparities women face. As director, Litt also solidified Clayman’s presence nationally. In the words of current Clayman director Shelley Correll, Iris Litt left “smooth paths to tread” for future gender scholars across disciplines and universities when her term ended.

Prior to her directorship, medical researchers at Stanford rarely interacted with scholars in the humanities and social sciences. Heading the Clayman Institute exposed Litt to diverse perspectives on gender inequality and she began asking her medical school colleagues, “Have you ever analyzed your data with respect to gender?” Exploring this question created the foundation of her agenda as the Institute’s director. Litt herself began to work with scholars outside of the medical school to address questions about gender and adolescent health and to highlight the value of interdisciplinary approaches for combatting the health disparities that adolescents face.

Litt’s agenda lives on at Stanford

The effects of Litt’s directorship are still felt at Stanford today.  Her work inspired the creation of the Iris F. Litt Fund, a program that supports faculty members conducting research on women and gender. Litt Fellows examine a range of issues from the decreasing number of women scientists in academia to the gendered stigmas attached to certain diseases like osteoporosis and heart disease. Beyond Clayman, she continues to foster interdisciplinary research as the interim head of Stanford’s Center for the Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS).

Litt continues to advocate for new directions for gender and medical research, but warns that there are still challenges to be met. Two examples are the relatively low budget given to NIH’s Office on Research on Women’s Health and current drug trial regulations, which, because they only require the inclusion of female participants rather than mandating that a sufficient number of women be included to preform meaningful statistical analyses, can leave the effects of many prescription drugs on women’s health unknown. Addressing these challenges, according to Litt, would lead to better, more-inclusive health care for women and girls.

Litt’s journey towards interdisciplinary research 

Litt’s journey towards interdisciplinary gender scholarship began at Stanford. In 1976, she became the Director of Stanford’s Division of Adolescent Medicine, which she founded. Eight years later, she was selected as a Fellow at the CASBS, an institute that brings together scholars from diverse disciplinary backgrounds to foster interdisciplinary collaboration. As a CASBS Fellow, Litt worked with scholars outside of the medical school to address questions about her own research in adolescent health and learned the value of interdisciplinary approaches for combating the health disparities that adolescents, particularly young girls, face. She incorporated this interdisciplinary approach when addressing new questions about health care.

Litt began her medical career as a pediatric physician in New York. After completing her medical training at the State University of New York and her pediatric residency at New York Hospital (Cornell), she served as co-director of the Division of Adolescent Medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She also established the medical program at the Juvenile Center of the city of New York and the remand shelter of Riker Island Prison Health Services. These positions fostered her interest in improving the care of young inmates and adolescents and led to the development of standards for delivery of care around the country.

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.