Arghavan Salles is a part-time senior research scholar for the Clayman Institute. Her research focuses broadly on gender equity, implicit bias, diversity, inclusion and physician well-being. During the pandemic, Salles has served as a disaster relief physician, caring for patients with COVID in the ICU. In addition to scholarly writing, she has published extensively for broad audiences in USA Today, Time magazine and others. Salles received her MD/PhD from Stanford, she was a Graduate Dissertation Fellow at the Clayman Institute.
In her current position at the Institute, Salles will be conducting research and convening the COVID-19 and gender research group. She will also lead the gender and the pandemic writing series. In this interview, we learn more about her professional interests, motivations and experiences.
You’re both a surgeon and a researcher. What interested you in studying gender and equity issues?
I studied engineering in college and have always really loved math and science. I never really thought I was out of place, though, even though I am a woman. It wasn't until I finished medical school and started residency that I was exposed to gender-based discrimination. I heard off-hand comments that alerted me to the problem, e.g., "I don't know why we train women to become surgeons since they just go off and have babies" (said directly to me) and "Why is she being so hysterical?" (said about a calm and concerned woman surgeon taking care of a sick patient). It also didn't take long for me to feel that women were held to a different standard than were the men.
As a person who always tries to understand the world around me, during my PhD I fell in love with social psychology and how it helps us understand human behavior. I became fascinated with stereotype threat and ended up focusing on that for my dissertation. I firmly believe everyone deserves the opportunity to contribute in their workplace and to be valued for what they bring to the table. Seeing that this was not possible for women in surgery, at least not without overcoming significant obstacles, I was driven to understand why and try to change it.
During the first months of the pandemic, you went to New York to work with COVID patients. Looking back a year later, what do you remember most strongly from that experience?
I think we will all remember how we felt in the spring of 2020 for a long, long time. Like many people, I was anxious and unsettled by the shelter in place orders and the sudden seemingly end of the world. What I remember most from my time in New York is the amount of death and dying. Never before and never since have I cared for so many patients who have died in such a short span of time. As healthcare workers, we were basically powerless. We had no effective therapies, and we barely even understood what the disease was. That feeling of inadequacy coupled with the desperation of the families was completely devastating for all involved.
You’re focusing on several COVID-related research efforts for the Clayman Institute. Tell us about that work and about some of the gender and COVID issues you would most like to see addressed.
One of the things I'm working on is assessing the race and gender representation of experts featured on COVID-related podcasts from the major medical journals.... We have to keep reminding people of the importance of intentionally expanding our networks, whether we are looking for job candidates, award nominees, or expertise in the media.
The pandemic has magnified quite a few preexisting disparities in our society. Early on we saw the disproportionate impact of the disease on Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people. As unemployment data became available, we also saw that women, and particularly Black, Latina, and disabled women, were impacted more than men. We still haven't seen complete recovery from those losses. In addition, women who did not lose their jobs had to manage, in many cases, home-schooling as well as elder care and household management without the additional supports they may have had prior to the pandemic. We have to figure out help those who have lost jobs find them, and we have to adjust productivity targets and promotion criteria to reflect the huge shift in how our society has functioned in the last year. Importantly, we also need to retain the policies and procedures, such as remote work, that helped people of all genders manage in the last year.
One of the things I'm working on is assessing the race and gender representation of experts featured on COVID-related podcasts from the major medical journals. One study showed women were under-represented among medical experts featured on cable news COVID segments, and I suspect the same is true among these journals. We have to keep reminding people of the importance of intentionally expanding our networks, whether we are looking for job candidates, award nominees, or expertise in the media.
You served as a Graduate Dissertation Fellow for the Clayman Institute in 2010-11 How did that experience influence your work?
I was honored to be a Graduate Dissertation Fellow back in 2010-2011! It was the first time I really engaged with a group of other researchers interested in understanding different issues related to gender. I learned a lot from the other fellows and just from being part of the Clayman community. One of the most influential experiences I had was probably the training we did with The Op Ed Project which put in my head the idea that I could do more than write research papers and could actually write directly for society at large. I doubt I would have done any of that writing without that influence.
I am very concerned that people will want to go back to the way things were in the before times, even though we are not the same people we were then.
Now that many people are getting vaccinated, we’re starting to sense another change coming in our behaviors at home and work. Do you have any predictions about what this transition will be like, and what it will mean for women?
I am very concerned that people will want to go back to the way things were in the before times, even though we are not the same people we were then. As much as most of us desire more human contact than we have had in the last year, we also have enjoyed the time that we gained from not having to commute. Spending time commuting can be the difference, for example, between whether a person is able to work out or not. And of course less commuting lowers our carbon footprint as well. And even though giving a talk on Zoom is not as satisfying as doing it in person, I have reclaimed so much time in my life by not spending two or more days traveling just to give a one-hour talk. Perhaps more importantly, this lower level of long-distance travel is far better for the environment. I'm not saying we never need to travel again, but I really hope people are intentional about when events really need to be in person rather than just going back to the way we were, with everything needing to be in-person.
At this moment, employers need to be thoughtful about how to allow for some mix of remote and in-person work while being mindful of making sure those who are working from home are not excluded from decision-making and the general culture of the workplace. And event planners should think critically about what part of their events, if any, needs to be in-person.