Study shows lack of Black, Latinx women in surgical faculty

White men continue to dominate key leadership positions such as full professors and chairs within departments.
By: | May 11, 2021
JC Gellidon/Unsplash

Black and Latinx faculty continue to lag behind White colleagues in academic surgical leadership positions throughout the United States, according to a new report released by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center and University of Florida Health.

The study, which appears published in the Journal of American Medicine’s JAMA Surgery noted a shockingly low representation of Black (2.7%) and Hispanic/Latinx (4.4%) as full professors, as well as a lack of mobility among women of color in leadership positions, with only one having been promoted as department chair over a six-year span (2013-2019).

Virginia Commonwealth and UF Health performed the study of 15,000 faculty members (general surgeons and subspecialists, neurosurgeons, and urologists) who served in surgery departments during that time. The disparities highlighted how much ground Black, Hispanic and Latinx faculty have to make up to get anywhere near par with White faculty.

“There are a lot of talented surgeons of different races, ethnicities and genders who do wonderful work and are being underrecognized or not recognized at all. And that’s contributed to a lot of frustration,” said study senior author Dr. Jose Trevino, chair of surgical oncology and associate professor of surgery at the VCU School of Medicine and surgeon-in-chief at VCU Massey Cancer Center.

According to the study, Whites represented more than 77% of full professors and chairs, key positions within departments. Though female faculty members actually outpaced their male counterparts in instructor, assistant professor and associate professor roles, they were unrepresented in the upper tiers, accounting for less than a quarter of those positions. Black and Hispanic/Latinx female faculty experienced no increase or a decrease, respectively, compared with slight gains for male faculty (Black men +0.07%, Hispanic/Latinx 0.1%) among full professors.

“I don’t think it’s a matter that they don’t aspire to these positions,” said the study’s lead author Dr. Andrea Riner, a surgical resident at the University of Florida College of Medicine. “And I think many of them are truly qualified to lead.”

Researchers did note that the number of Black and Hispanic/Latinx men in chair positions did decline slightly. White male dominance among chair positions also dropped about 4% (still not enough to make up for the divide), but it was Asian faculty members who saw a 4% level of promotion, not women or women of color.

So, what can be done to try to close these deep gaps?

Authors suggest three potential solutions:

  1. Leaders should recommend or back other rising faculty members, particularly from junior and mid-career levels. That would help build momentum toward change. Riner said, “Having that person speak up for you and say you are deserving of whatever position you’d like to hold is really powerful. As a profession, we need to be a little more cognizant or intentional about sponsoring diverse people within our departments.”
  2. Though authors say that by itself, mentors likely cannot change those statistics, they can be a force in helping those at lower levels gain the knowledge and confidence they need to boost their careers. Similarly, they say allies can help in improving outcomes for those at junior and mid-career levels.
  3. The more representatives there are from a particular subgroup – Black, Hispanic, Latinx, female – the more likely that upward mobility will exist and the more inspiration those leaders will be to aspiring faculty members.

“There are a lot of great leaders in surgery now, leaders who are very much willing to address these inequities, though their day-to-day activities don’t really allow for it,” Trevino said. “Every now and again we as a profession need to take a pause and remind the people who are at the top of these academic ladders that they can help someone up and push them forward.”