Changing the Culture of Academic Medicine: Critical Mass or Critical Actors?

Deborah L. Helitzer, Sharon L. Newbill, Gina Cardinali, Page S. Morahan, Shine Chang, Diane Magrane

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


Purpose: By 2006, women constituted 34% of academic medical faculty, reaching a critical mass. Theoretically, with critical mass, culture and policy supportive of gender equity should be evident. We explore whether having a critical mass of women transforms institutional culture and organizational change. Methods: Career development program participants were interviewed to elucidate their experiences in academic health centers (AHCs). Focus group discussions were held with institutional leaders to explore their perceptions about contemporary challenges related to gender and leadership. Content analysis of both data sources revealed points of convergence. Findings were interpreted using the theory of critical mass. Results: Two nested domains emerged: the individual domain included the rewards and personal satisfaction of meaningful work, personal agency, tensions between cultural expectations of family and academic roles, and women's efforts to work for gender equity. The institutional domain depicted the sociocultural environment of AHCs that shaped women's experience, both personally and professionally, lack of institutional strategies to engage women in organizational initiatives, and the influence of one leader on women's ascent to leadership. Conclusions: The predominant evidence from this research demonstrates that the institutional barriers and sociocultural environment continue to be formidable obstacles confronting women, stalling the transformational effects expected from achieving a critical mass of women faculty. We conclude that the promise of critical mass as a turning point for women should be abandoned in favor of "critical actor" leaders, both women and men, who individually and collectively have the commitment and power to create gender-equitable cultures in AHCs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)540-548
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Women's Health
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • academic medicine
  • qualitative research
  • women faculty

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)


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