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Faculty Fellow researches barriers for pregnant women in academic medicine

photo of woman in mask looking at slide
Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash
Nov 11 2019
Inspired by her personal experience and the barriers she faced when she decided to start a family, Dr. Rebecca Bernert, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, founding director of the Suicide Prevention Research Laboratory, and Clayman Institute faculty research fellow, has now as one of her research goals the understanding of why women still face discrimination in academic medicine. Rooted in her conviction—backed by many studies—of the value and importance of diversity in medicine, Bernert is determined to identify and understand the barriers that women still face in current times. 
At a spring Faculty Fellows lunch at the Clayman Institute, Bernert presented her preliminary findings and current projects on her main research questions regarding gender inequality: why, despite medical students’ parity, the number of women remains so low in academic medicine, and how family formation and childrearing impact women’s career trajectories. Bernert herself experienced parity in medical school and was stunned when she was not able to experience family life at its fullest. The statistics cited by Bernert staggeringly confirm her own experience: only 16 percent of deans in medical schools are women, 21 percent are full professors and 38 percent are faculty. Even more discouraging is the fact that little has changed in faculty composition since the early 2000s, even though meaningful family-friendly policies have been implemented by the NIH. 

photo of Bernert

To better understand how the barriers that prevent women’s parity at the faculty level operate, Bernert started two pilot projects at Stanford aiming to investigate work-life barriers and policies that may impact faculty diversity, inclusion, and retention of early-career scientists, and the challenges in the use and visibility of institutional family-friendly policies that aim to address the barriers that may impact faculty advancement, diversity and inclusion. 
Confusion about family leave policies and compensation; misunderstanding of who the gatekeepers are; expensive on-campus childcare; and pressure to return to work earlier from leave were among the barriers that Bernert found after talking to the pilot study participants. On top of this, Bernert explained that the logic behind grant funding in medical schools and the track from junior faculty to independence are not designed to accommodate women having children, putting on women the burden of a pregnancy penalty. 
Yet, after all, there is some good news. Bernert is enthusiastic about research showing that education and career flexibility initiatives predict improvements in the visibility about the use of policies and the reduction of gender bias. Thus, what actions to take are already in our scope. This is why she will continue to push her line of gender equality research with three projects underway that will contribute to the understanding of how to break down the barriers in medical school faculties and ensure parity among women and men. 

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