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A scarcity of women in leadership positions in academic medicine has persisted despite their increasing numbers in medical training. To understand the barriers confronting women and potential remedies, clinical department chairs with extensive leadership experience were interviewed.In 1998–99, open-ended interviews averaging 80 minutes in length were conducted with 34 chairs and two division chiefs in five specialties. Individuals were selected to achieve a balance for gender, geographic locale, longevity in their positions, and sponsorship and research intensity of their institutions. The interviews were audiotaped and fully transcribed, and the themes reported emerged from inductive analysis of the responses using standard qualitative techniques.The chairs' responses centered on the constraints of traditional gender roles, manifestations of sexism in the medical environment, and lack of effective mentors. Their strategies for addressing these barriers ranged from individual or one-on-one interventions (e.g., counseling, confronting instances of bias, and arranging for appropriate mentors) to institutional changes (e.g., extending tenure probationary periods, instituting mechanisms for responding to unprofessional behavior, establishing mentoring networks across the university).The chairs universally acknowledged the existence of barriers to the advancement of women and proposed a spectrum of approaches to address them. Individual interventions, while adapting faculty to requirements, also tend to preserve existing institutional arrangements, including those that may have adverse effects on all faculty. Departmental or school-level changes address these shortcomings and have a greater likelihood of achieving enduring impact.