Pololi honored for helping women in medicine, science

Work relies on confidential interviews with men and women faculty

Photo/Mike Lovett

Dr. Linda Pololi

Novel research about what the country’s medical schools and their faculty are doing wrong has landed Linda Pololi a prestigious award from the organization that accredits the country’s medical schools.
“I was surprised to have received this,” says Dr. Linda H. Pololi, a senior scientist at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center. “The Association of American Medical Colleges is a very prestigious organization and my research really challenges the status quo.”

The association's 2011 Women in Medicine and Science Leadership Development Award was bestowed on Pololi recently in Denver, Colo. The group has recognized 17 individuals and 11 Women in Medicine programs since it was created in 1995.
“The impact of your efforts to support and advance women’s careers are far-reaching,” the AAMC stated in its award letter. “This award recognizes your profound influence not only at Brandeis University, Weill Cornell, the University of Massachusetts and East Carolina, but also your contributions to the larger academic medicine community.”
Pololi and her colleagues conducted confidential interviews with men and women faculty members in a variety of specialties at five prominent medical schools across the country, whose senior administration agreed to participate, then followed up nationally with the C – Change Faculty Survey. While the study determined that positive aspects of the culture in academic medicine exist, it found that faculty often experienced isolation, destructive competition, undervaluing of altruism, criticism, disrespect and a lack of trust.
One dominant theme, says Pololi, is that there’s often a real disconnect between the personal values of faculty and the reasons that brought them into academic medicine, as well as the values they see rewarded or exemplified by the institutions in which they work. Lack of values alignment, she says, is a cause of moral distress ​among faculty.
“There’s research showing that students come into medical school with quite altruistic values and become more cynical and less idealistic throughout the four years,” says Pololi. “The faculty still holds some of this altruism yet they don’t really see it being rewarded always in medical schools; 25 percent of the faculty in our national survey data say that their organization discourages altruism.”
Pololi’s team found that un-relatedness and both ethical and moral distress, along with people feeling that they are changed within the culture, correlated with faculty attrition.In addition, 87 percent of the faculty, both male and female, said that they have to be self-promoters to get ahead and more aggressive than they want to be in order to succeed.
“All of those dimensions are antithetical if you are trying to train someone to be compassionate in a healing profession,” says Pololi. “You have to make a relationship with your patients in order to be effective.”
Pololi says findings from her team’s research are very sobering about the culture of academic medicine and its shortcomings. Her book “Changing the Culture of Academic Medicine: Perspectives of Women Faculty,” published in 2010 by Dartmouth College Press, refutes and challenges often repeated rumors or myths about women and underrepresented minority faculty in medicine.
It all started in 2006 with a pilot study funded by the Sloan Foundation, where Pololi interviewed 23 faculty members, many of whom were leaders across the country. Soon after, her team was granted $3 million from the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation to continue the research as part of an ongoing project, the National Initiative on Gender, Culture and Leadership in Medicine, also known as C – Change (for culture change). The purpose of the project was to facilitate change in the culture of academic medicine, support all faculty and address the need of developing women and minority faculty members' full potential and leadership in academic medicine in the U.S.
“When we first started these interviews we didn’t ask faculty about problems, we asked what energized them in medicine,” says Pololi. “Still, all of this emerged.”
The goal of all of the research, Pololi says, has been to create a greater awareness of the culture that affects everyone in an academic medical center so that it would become more relational and values-driven.
"It is highly laudable that the deans in our participating schools have taken this trail-blazing initiative to explore the extent and causes of this dissatisfaction and to do something about it," says Pololi.
Part of the C - Change project had the deans of these five medical schools, other leaders, some junior faculty and a purposely diverse faculty come together for two days every six months to form a community of learning across power differentials, race and gender and give them the experience of a different trusting and inclusive culture, which was cultivated in the meetings over the five year period.
“We gave them the data from their own schools and looked at promising practices happening in other places, developed relationships and trust,” says Pololi.
The subject of culture change has now become a topic of conversation in medical schools.
Pololi “has developed innovative mentor programs, conducted research that has increased the understanding of cultural factors that negatively impact the achievement of faculty and challenged leaders in academic medicine to be change agents,” says the AAMC of Pololi.
What would Pololi like to see changed through faculty?
“I’d put in place activities that support humanizing the culture and relationship formation among faculty, and I’d like to address the fact that we need women and underrepresented minority faculty in leadership,” says Pololi. “We should be taking advantage of what they could be bringing to the table, and their potential to ask profound questions about the values served by the institution.”
Pololi says that if we look at the statistics in the United States compared to other developed countries we do very poorly.
“Academic medicine should be taking a leadership role in health care ​for the nation,” says Pololi. “We fall very short as a country in terms of the care that we really provide to the whole nation.”

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences

Return to the BrandeisNOW homepage