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Even America’s Top Doctors Aren’t Getting the Parental Leave Doctors Recommend

Medical schools aren’t good at keeping women as professors. Could better maternity leave help?

Doctors recommend that new parents get 12 weeks off work, but even the top doctors teaching their future peers at America’s best medical schools are getting leave far short of their own profession’s guidelines.

Policies for faculty at 12 top U.S. medical schools vary widely in terms of who gets paid time off and how much, a new review has found—but on average, birth mothers get about two months of paid leave, about a month short of what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends.

The schools’ broader policies, covering more than just birth mothers, were even wider-ranging and often used more ambiguous language. Some policies applied only to “primary caregivers”; others specifically mentioned fathers. Many ultimately left decisions up to a professor’s supervisor.  

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of California–San Francisco, looked at the top 10 medical schools in the U.S. News & World Report academic rankings, as well as the 10 that receive the most National Institutes of Health funding. Its findings are published in a new paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“What surprised me was how difficult it was to interpret the leave policies,” said Dr. Christina Mangurian, one of the study’s authors and a psychiatrist and professor at University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine. “How many M.D.s and Ph.D.s does it take to understand what a leave policy is trying to say?”  

Of the almost 1 million licensed physicians in the U.S., just under 200,000 work as faculty at medical schools. But even as more women than ever enter academic medicine, men still dominate at its highest echelons. Women hold fewer than a quarter of full-professor positions, thanks in part to what researchers have called the “leaky pipeline” phenomenon, with many women leaving academia when they’re still assistant professors, Mangurian said. “It does coincide with childbearing years,” she added. “Our retention of women is poor up to senior leadership roles.”

That’s already a problem in medicine, and at a point well before doctors become professors. All practicing physicians start their careers as medical residents training at academic institutions, and their leave policies are all over the place, with most programs making it impossible for residents to take 12 weeks off for a new child. A recent survey suggested this could be discouraging women from going into surgical specialties—particularly elite and high-paying areas of medicine with particularly long residencies. 

Mangurian and her colleagues did find a hopeful spot in their survey, though: While they worked on it, three of the institutions they looked at bumped up the amount of leave they offer faculty. “I don’t think they’re doing it out of the kindness of their hearts,” she added. “They’re just like, ‘If we do this, we can retain and recruit better talent.’”

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