A Clear Path Forward

On June 14, Susan Girdler, PhD, professor of psychiatry and psychology, and the director of the Stress & Health Research Program at the UNC School of Medicine, will travel to Washington, D.C., for the first-ever United State of Women Summit, convened by the White House.

A Clear Path Forward click to enlarge Susan Girdler, PhD

By Jamie Williams, jamie.williams@unchealth.unc.edu

Though women are now entering academic medicine at the same rate as men, studies have shown that they make up less than 20 percent of faculty at the full professor level. As Susan Girdler, PhD, looks back on her 20-plus year career as a clinical researcher, she said the hurdles that women in junior faculty positions face today are similar to those she faced in the 1990s.

“Early in my career, with two children at home, it’s easy to look back now and ask ‘how did I do it?’ Well, I was able to make it to where I am because of the support of a wonderful senior faculty mentor,” said Girdler, a professor of psychiatry and psychology, and the director of the Stress & Health Research Program at the School of Medicine.

Now, she dedicates much of her time to being that same type of resource for junior faculty in the department of psychiatry and across the School of Medicine.

A few years ago, Girdler heard from women early in their academic careers who felt overly stressed and isolated from their male colleagues. As a way to foster connections, she helped create the organization Women in Science Deserve Opportunities and Mentoring (WISDOM). What started as a series of monthly lunch discussions surrounding Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller Lean In has grown into an organization with members from across the SOM that sponsors events and professional development opportunities.

“WISDOM has always focused on supporting women in the critical transition stages early in their academic careers,” Girdler said. “There are a lot of hurdles as you transition from postdoc to assistant professor and so on. That’s when we’re losing people.”

Girdler is also current President of the Association for Professional Women in Medical Sciences, which she says includes many more senior faculty members who are willing to discuss how they got to their current positions and help support younger faculty members on the way up.

One of her goals is to bring as much transparency as possible to the tenure and promotion process.

“I want to make certain that our faculty understand what they need to do to succeed,” Girdler said. “There are a lot of different paths forward at UNC; it’s certainly not one size fits all.”

One of the reasons women drop out of academic medicine at higher rates than men, Girdler said, is that they often have significant outside responsibilities like childcare or eldercare.

“If you’re someone with children at home, it’s nearly impossible to attend a 7 a.m. meeting, or an after-hours social event, which are places where a lot of informal mentoring happens,” said Girdler. “Not being able to participate in things like that can lead to more feelings of isolation.”

Girdler and Amelia Drake, MD, Newton D. Fischer Distinguished Professor of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery, are leading an effort that they hope can change the conversation about the importance of caregiving.

The Caregivers at Carolina program was established earlier this year to provide support for early career physician-scientists – both men and women – with extraordinary caregiving responsibilities. The group – which is funded by The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Fund to Retain Clinical Scientists – recently announced its first class of funding recipients, and Girdler said she hopes to extend opportunities to more in the future.

“With this program, we are finally able to acknowledge that caregiving is a major part of life for our faculty, and by supporting them in a meaningful way we can show that it’s acceptable and we no longer have to make excuses for the fact that we have children at home or are caring for an elderly parent,” Girdler said.

As she reviewed the Summit’s schedule, Girdler homed in on a break out session called “Valuing Caregiving in the 21st Century.”

“When we value caregiving, the narratives and conversations will change,” Girdler said.

Part of changing that narrative goes back to the conversations about the promotion process.

“There’s no place on your CV to include that you are a caregiver,” Girdler said. “So, when you’re up for a promotion review, how can you be judged against someone else? Is there some way to account for everything you do outside of the work place?”

Girdler said she’s thankful to be at a point in her career where she can prioritize mentorship.

“I’ve been here for 22 years and like anyone, my interests have evolved over that time,” she said. “And for the last several years, a great focus of mine has been on supporting junior faculty and women in academic medicine.”

She hopes her trip to Washington will allow her to meet others with the same focus and learn about best practices that could be put into place at UNC.

“I don’t want to go up there and just absorb information,” she said. “I want to come back empowered with things we can hopefully implement here and continue to affect positive change.”

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