By: Dr. Jenny Mladenovic, MD, MBA, MACP, President & CEO, Center for Academic Medicine and Science, President, Foundation for the Advancement of International Medical Education and Research

COVID-19 may have converted what has always been a steep hill, into an insurmountable mountain for many women who are pursuing their dreams and the greater good in academic medicine. Persisting in a culture where we have been silent with respect to our home commitments; where we are left out of networks that make our academic productivity easier and more fun; where our talents, resources, and rewards are less than our male counterparts; and where we have had to paddle harder and faster to remain in the mainstream of a profession we felt honored to be part of, may no longer even feel like an option.

Already the COVID pandemic has accentuated the inequities for women in academia: fewer grant submissions, fewer publications (while men’s have increased), and yes – more time in the home caring for future generations and elders, and filling the gaps made worse during the pandemic. Studying the COVID impact at all levels is important in designing policies that account for these additional burdens within an already inequitable system. But more important is thinking differently about a system that was designed when women were not present in significant numbers and were, in fact, assumed to be supporting men in the home. This system demands the most of women during a time when many also commit a tremendous amount of their physical and emotional capacity to propagating the next generation.

Twice the burnout is bad enough, but losing all the progress we have made is an even worse outcome for our collective futures. I’ve recently read several articles that lay it out clearly: so long as having a child is “a bad career move” in academic medicine and science, we will not have equity.

Dr. Mladenovic as a child, with her mother.

Dr. Mladenovic as a child, with her mother, whose support made it possible for her to continue in academic medicine.

Inequality doesn’t only stem from treating women differently from men; it also stems from a failure to recognize and make space for differences. After all, even in the most equitable society, a cisgender male partner cannot share equally in the work of gestation, childbirth, and breastfeeding.

I often said that I used my physician’s salary to support my “working habit.” And I still could not have survived without my mother: my Slovenian mom, who believed she was always on call for me when and wherever I needed to work. Even with my mother’s great gift, a supportive spouse, and on occasion, two nannies, it seemed I had little emotional or mental capacity to be creative or write – all necessary during those years where productivity is the expectation.

COVID has undoubtedly illuminated and exacerbated gender inequality in medicine. In thinking about how we move forward, we need more than a return to pre-COVID days. We need new ideas and solutions so we can choose our paths (including specialties that are deemed “less family friendly”), so we can compete on equal footing because we have more support for home obligations, and so we can access bridges and flexibility without stigma during our fluctuating workloads.

Please share your thoughts and help us change the culture of academic medicine and science.