Seven women from the College of Medicine have been selected to join the prestigious Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine program

There’s a lot to celebrate about women’s advancement in medicine.

Today, women comprise almost half of medical students and are well represented as junior faculty members in academic positions. But for years, there has been a disparity in the proportion of men and women garnering the top spots as department heads or deans.

At the University of Illinois, the unique perspective that women can bring to the executive suite is apparent—starting with the chancellor of the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Diversity is evident in our student body and extends to our faculty and all levels of administration and staff,” says Paula Allen- Meares, chancellor. “UIC’s commitment to diversity is critical to our mission of advancing access to excellence and success in academic programs, research and health care.”

T he College of Medicine has taken this commitment to diversity a step further, supporting seven women leaders to date in the professional opportunity of a lifetime—participation in the Hedwig van Ameringen Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine program.

Sponsored by the Institute for Women’s Health and Leadership at Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia, ELAM is an exclusive national program, accepting 54 women per year from across the country for a yearlong experience in leadership training. The program is designed to increase the numbers of women faculty in senior leadership positions as executives and change agents in schools of medicine, dentistry and public health.

Since ELAM was launched in 1995, nearly 700 women have participated in the intensive program, which is focused on strategic finance, organizational dynamics and leadership effectiveness, and delivered through readings and reflection, interactive large- and smallgroup sessions and development of an institutional action project. ELAM provides networking and mentoring opportunities, giving women the tools—and contacts—they need to advance their careers.

“Selection to become an ELAM Fellow is very competitive,” says Diane Magrane, MD, program director. ”We receive double the number of applicants to open positions. In making our admissions decisions, we look at both how the institution is able to support their ELAM Fellow as well as what her application reveals about her leadership experience.”

In sponsoring seven ELAM Fellows to date, the College of Medicine has supported the advancement of women leaders by providing time for professional development as well as mentoring opportunities and the chance to impact the institution through group projects completed as part of the ELAM program.

The seven ELAM Fellows from the College of Medicine have included:

  • Sara Rusch, MD, professor and regional dean of the College of Medicine at Peoria;
  • Stacie Geller, PhD, professor and director of the UIC Center for Research on Women and Gender;
  • Karen Colley, PhD, professor and associate dean for graduate research and education;
  • Meenakshy Aiyer, MD, associate professor and interim associate dean for academic affairs for the College of Medicine at Peoria;
  • Geri Donenberg, PhD, professor and director of the Healthy Youths Program and the Community Outreach Intervention Projects;
  • Pauline Maki, PhD, professor and director of the Women’s Mental Health Research Program; and
  • Sarah Kilpatrick, MD, PhD, recently departed vice dean for the College of Medicine, as well as professor and head of obstetrics and gynecology.

Participants say the program has allowed them to not only fine-tune their leadership skills, but also to connect and form relationships with talented women leaders from around the country, a combination that has empowered them to take on new career challenges.

Rusch participated in ELAM’s second class. “A leader’s job is to develop a picture of the future that is shared by as many members of the organization as possible, and then to start assembling the puzzle pieces to make that picture a reality,” she says. “Participating in ELAM gave me better tools to collaborate effectively. My fellow participants provided examples of how to successfully manage both home and career demands”—an issue that she and her husband, who is also a physician, manage daily as they balance their careers and their family of seven children.

ELAM broadened the network of high-level professional academic women around the country for Geller, who also directs the National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health. “We cannot get women into high-level positions unless they are trained both formally and informally about how to be leaders,” she says. “Programs such as ELAM allow us to recognize the problem and change the disparity.”

For her research, mentorship and leadership, Geller was recently chosen as the 2010 Woman of the Year by the chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Women. This annual award honors a UIC woman who has consistently worked on women’s issues beyond the call of duty and who is an exemplary role model.

Colley cherishes the diversity—and commonalities—of her ELAM class. “I met women physicians, scientists and dentists from all over the country,” she says. “We were able to hear many different perspectives, but we found that we were all dealing with the same issues and challenges. The program also incorporates interviews with administrators at the university, which was broadening and helped me understand the institution as a whole.”

Aiyer puts the skills she learned at ELAM into practice as she focuses on mentoring junior faculty members in the Caterpillar Faculty Scholars Fellowship program, which she directs. “In planning my career path, I knew I wanted to grow into a position of administrative leadership,” she says. “ELAM was an empowering program that helped me identify my strengths and areas of improvement and improve my skill set, and gave me confidence to take on new challenges.”

A current ELAM Fellow, Donenberg will use what she learns at ELAM as chair of the college’s Faculty Academic Advancement Committee.

“I am developing an action plan to facilitate better retention and promotion of female and underrepresented minority faculty through more effective mentoring, particularly for women of color,” she says. “Women are still woefully underrepresented in top leadership roles, so there aren’t many role models to teach women how to be leaders. In the past, there were societal and cultural pressures to exhibit one type of leadership style, which tended to reflect the ‘male’ approach. ELAM helps us rewrite the rules of leadership to include how women lead—providing the tools and the connections we need and want to reach our full potential and the level of leadership we hope to achieve.”

Maki attended ELAM just after having her first child. “The training was unlike anything I could have gotten elsewhere,” she says. “In one hands-on exercise, we learned some hard lessons as we balanced the entire budget of a fictitious academic medical center. There’s a great untapped capital of women’s leadership. ELAM helps unlock the power of having more than one style of leadership at an institution.”

“The ELAM program has been remarkably successful and provides a huge leap forward for women,” Allen-Meares says. “When women are in senior leadership positions, they are role models that younger women can look to and say, ‘I can do this, too.’ ”