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AMA Aims to Equalize Gender Imbalances in Medical Research

CHICAGO — New policies aimed at curbing gender bias in medical research were approved during the American Medical Association (AMA) House of Delegate meeting on Tuesday.

Before auditions were blinded, there was a vast gender imbalance among musicians in symphony orchestras, said Smitha Arekapudi, MD, an alternate delegate for the Illinois State Medical Association, during a committee discussion prior to the resolution’s endorsement.

Once musicians began performing behind a screen and even removing their shoes — presumably to prevent women’s lighter footfalls or their high heels from suggesting their gender — the percentage of women hired by symphonies shot up, Arekapudi said.

Harvard researchers published their findings of this type of intervention in the American Economic Review in 2000, noting that the introduction of “blind auditions” had “significantly reduced gender-based hiring.” More specifically, the mechanism may have accounted for 25% of the increase in the proportion of women in symphony orchestras.

In order for women in medical research to level the playing field with men, with whom they compete for space in medical journals and for research dollars, the process needs to be similarly blinded, said Arekapudi.

Multiples studies have shown that among grant proposals in the peer-review process, those written by women are often scored lower than those by men. Other studies show that male job applicants in the basic sciences are seen as superior and deserving of higher pay, even when the only difference in the application materials submitted are names, Arekapudi continued.

“For these reasons, we ask the AMA to advocate for the establishment of best practices that remove gender bias” in the grant proposal process, and the process of submissions to peer-reviewed journals to include “removing names and gender identity from applications during review processes,” she said.

David Rosman, MD, a delegate from the Massachusetts Medical Society, speaking on behalf of the New England delegation, said the change would decrease implicit bias, not only against women but other racial minorities as well.

However, Samuel Wong, MD, a delegate of the Young Physicians Section, expressed concern that removing a name entirely could minimize the importance of an individual’s “established research background” and his or her publication history — a critical determinant in funding decisions. He recommended minimizing, but not eliminating, gender information instead.

Arekapudi countered that even after blinding names, it would still be possible to evaluate a candidate’s experience and achievements.

“There are ways to score previous publications, experience, and assess those things. This resolution really calls for figuring out what those best practices are,” she said.

The resolution passed undisputed by any further debate on the House floor on Tuesday afternoon.

Two other policy recommendations, including a new and comprehensive report that defines appropriate conduct at AMA meetings and addresses prior concerns around the organization’s response to reports of sexual harassment (as well as other forms of harassment and bullying) also passed without dispute, in addition to a resolution calling for the association to weigh a partnership with the TIME’S UP Healthcare movement, with a report due back by the AMA’s interim meeting in November 2019.


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