NIH Distinguished Investigator Discusses Impact of Pandemic on Diversity in the Workplace

Elaine Jaffe, MD, National Institutes of Health (NIH) distinguished investigator at the National Cancer Institute at NIH, offers guidance for female medical researchers who are faced with a declining number of female colleagues in the workforce.

Pharmacy Times interviewed Elaine Jaffe, MD, National Institutes of Health (NIH) distinguished investigator at the National Cancer Institute at NIH, who is receiving the American Society for Investigative Pathology Gold-Headed Cane Award and is presenting an award lecture at the Experimental Biology 2022 conference on the classification of lymphoma in the modern era—a marriage of pathology and genomics.

Question: During the pandemic, there have been a significant number of female researchers leaving the field due to the strains of the pandemic on families and the rise in need for at-home child care. As a mentor in the field to other medical researchers, what are your thoughts on this occurring and its potential impact on the scope and type of research being conducted in the field?

Elaine Jaffe: Well, I think institutions are making it easier for families with young children and need to continue to do more. NIH has significantly expanded its on-campus childcare facilities. There's a new building, which just opened in the past few years, but there's still a waiting list to get into that building. So I'd say most of the younger postdocs and trainees still have to seek childcare outside the NIH.

I think there needs to be also more flexibility for both mothers and fathers in sharing of childcare duties. I think somehow, often supervisors are sort of more tolerant of women taking time off for childcare and less tolerant of men taking time off for childcare because they assume that it's going to be the maternal role. I know for my own children, I have a son who's married to a physician, and when she was going through internal medicine residency, he was really their primary childcare representative, so I think it has to be a shared responsibility.

Question: Do you have any guidance for young, female medical researchers who are faced with a declining number of female colleagues in the workforce?

Elaine Jaffe: Well, I think it's a continued problem. I'm on the NIH Equity Committee, and it's something that we grapple with all the time because we look at the number of women who are coming to NIH as postdocs and clinical fellows at early stages of their career, and many more of them drop off the pathway towards tenured investigator than men. It's difficult to fully understand the reasons for this.

For example, we see more women accepting positions as staff clinicians outside the tenure track than continuing to stay on the pathway to become a tenured independent investigator. I think many women feel that they really can't be competitive while trying to balance family responsibilities.

I was told by a senior journal editor for a major journal that, for example, women are less likely to challenge a negative review than men when submitting a paper. So, somehow, I think women are less willing to take on adversarial positions or challenge authority figures and are sort of more willing to take a back seat and let others lead the way, and I think it's unfortunate we have to overcome those prejudices and obstacles.

Question: Any closing thoughts?

Elaine Jaffe: No, I mean, I think it's been wonderful to see the changes in medicine. At the American Society for Investigative Pathology, there are many more women in leadership roles. I was one of the first to be president of the United States and Canadian Academy of Pathology. Now, it's commonplace, and I think women are continuing to take leadership roles in the medical field.