It all goes back to Mary Elizabeth Garrett. In the early 1890s, the suffragist and philanthropist, heir to the B&O Railroad fortune, contributed an ample portion of the funds needed to create the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. But her gift came with certain conditions: The new school would have to admit women on equal terms as men and reward them equally to men on their merits.
"She started something I don't think she foresaw the impact of," said Janice Clements, vice dean for faculty at today's School of Medicine. Clements spoke Wednesday to a room filled with women, some in in lab coats, who had gathered to celebrate the school's benchmark achievement this year of hiring more than 200 tenured female professors since its 1893 opening.
That group of women, Clements said, includes "trailblazers" and experts accomplishing "groundbreaking research in clinical care."
The professors who spoke at the celebration, hosted by the Office of Women in Science and Medicine, all shared stories of setbacks based on their gender. Julie Freischlag, who became the school's 95th tenured female professor when she joined Johns Hopkins in 2003 and is now dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine, spoke about learning years later why she wasn't accepted to her top choice medical program in the 1970s: the man in charge of admissions simply ripped up applications from women. Linda Fried, a former JHU professor who is now dean of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia, recalled a male doctor, a mentor, inviting her to sit on his lap in front of patients.
But the women also spoke of the progress they'd seen—and in some cases helped bring about themselves—in recent decades.
Susan Michaelis, a professor of cell biology at Johns Hopkins, joined the staff in 1988. At the time, "there were 19 tenured female faculty members in the history of Hopkins [Medicine]," she said. They dated back to 1917, when famed pathologist Florence Sabin became the school's first female professor. As of today, there have been 214 tenured female professors in the history of Hopkins Medicine after a notable increase beginning around the year 2000.
Fried, who founded the Johns Hopkins Center on Aging and Health, among other accomplishments at the university, shared some insight on how that uptick developed. In the late 1980s, she chaired a task force surveying female medical professors at Hopkins. The group found that women "were not really mentored to have a career trajectory," she said, and their promotion packages "looked very different from men's packages."
After a few years of "really scientific analyses" on the phenomenon, Fried said, "this institution, with great leadership, made a commitment to do a long series of very hard things" to shake up the status quo. "In an environment that does not kill the messenger when there's bad news, … in an environment that honors truth," she said, "you create a safety that unleashes creative energy.
"I can tell you with 100 percent certainty my career would have ended in '90 or '91 if the changes we made in the Department of Medicine hadn't happened," Fried added.
By 2000, Fried was part of another task force—this one universitywide—addressing gender inequity. But faculty members were initially reluctant to participate, feeling "nothing would happen," she said. A daylong retreat, involving hours of debate, ultimately snapped the group into action.
"We came to a unanimous conclusion," Fried said. "That it was absolutely the responsibility of great research institutions and great universities to care about these issues."
Paul B. Rothman, CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine and dean of the medical faculty, spoke of recent marks of progress. The School of Medicine sees gender parity in admissions, is nearing gender parity at the assistant professor level, and 41 percent of faculty in the basic science departments are women.
But, Michaelis said, "we still have a long way to go," noting that of the 590 tenured faculty at the School of Medicine currently, 22 percent are women.