Females in medical school hit a milestone last year. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), they now comprise the majority of enrolled U.S. medical students for the first time in history.

While women have also made recent advances in leadership roles in medicine, they still have a long way to go. For example, one study indicates gender disparities in rank, retention, and leadership remain across careers in academic medicine. Further, women were less likely to attain senior-level positions than men.

A student-led group at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine provides support and mentorship to women medical students as well as residents and physicians at Carilion Clinic. Sanctioned by the AAMC, the Group on Women in Medicine and Science (GWIMS) addresses such issues as gender equity, recruitment and retention, awards and recognition, and career advancement.

“Women are still a minority in STEM fields, so it’s important for them to connect with other women and to have a playbook, if you will, with shared knowledge,” said Rebecca Pauly, professor and vice chair of internal medicine for education at Carilion Clinic and the medical school. “A playbook for my generation is different from a playbook today, but as a lifelong learner, adapting to change is important. That’s why we are a resource for all women in medicine, not just the ones early in their career. Mentoring across generations is a unique aspect of the structure of GWIMS at VTCSOM.”

Pauly and Natalie Karp, urogynecologist at Carilion Clinic and assistant professor at the medical school, are the faculty advisors for the student-run organization. Pauly served as chair of the national steering committee for the group.  

“There are a lot of challenges that I think are unique to being a woman in medicine,” Karp said. “GWIMS is not meant to be negative towards men in any way. We want to include everyone in our dialogue, and men are invited to our events. But the data shows the challenges women face are different, and there’s inherent gender inequity.”

Four individuals sitting side by side. Female on far left is speaking. Others listening.
Patrice Weiss, executive vice president and chief medical officer at Carilion Clinic, speaks as part of a panel discussion on professional development hosted by the Group on Women in Medicine and Science. The group is led by students at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. Photo by Ryan Anderson for Virginia Tech.

With more women entering the field than ever before, the conversations about these types of issues will become increasingly important.

“When I joined GWIMS, I made it my goal to work to create more conversations and interactions among medical students, residents, physicians, and faculty members,” said Caroline Woods, a second-year medical student and president of the organization. “We all can benefit from a network like this.”

Gender inequity is an important topic. Karp reflected on her years in residency when she noticed a disproportionate number of males who were leading divisions or chairs of departments.

“A lot of leadership roles were still mostly men despite the fact that we were going into fields that were mostly women,” Karp said. “Now it’s important for me to be part of a conversation where people are talking about how we can make more strides towards equity across the board. Things like promotion biases are more subtle now than in the past, but they still occur.”

“GWIMS is so important because of its message,” Woods said. “It’s bringing support, mentorship, leadership together and enabling one woman to say to another, ‘Hey, this is what worked for me. Maybe it can help you out, too.’ ”

Four individuals seated side by side at a table. Woman on far right is speaking into a microphone.
Stephanie Robel, a researcher at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute shares her experiences as a woman in scientific research. Photo by Ryan Anderson for Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine alumna Becky Gates was on the GWIMS leadership team when she was a student and continues to be active as a surgery intern at Carilion Clinic.

“One of the most striking things about GWIMS is the honesty and transparency that I see from women faculty,” she said. “It provides a fantastic network of people to reach out to when I’m going through something they’ve already navigated. It’s a dynamic culture of getting and giving back that is priceless for all involved.”

The medical school recently received a gift from the mother of Cynda Johnson, the school’s founding dean, to establish an endowment fund to support GWIMS. The Cecil William Stolte and Dolores Ann Reith Stolte Fund for Women in Medicine and Science will be used for future GWIMS programming.

“We always believed our daughter would make a difference in this world for women, and we are proud that she has accomplished this goal,” Dolores Stolte said. “I considered several other investments, but when I learned of this endowment opportunity, I knew it was the only choice. It is my hope that it will benefit many women in the future."

Man and woman posed in portrait shot
Cecil William Stolte and Dolores Ann Reith Stolte

In addition to informal social get-togethers, GWIMS hosts special events several times a year. A recent panel discussion brought together men and women from the medical school, the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, and Carilion Clinic to discuss life and career experiences and insights. Primarily geared toward medical students and young medical professionals, the panel offered abundant wisdom on topics related to women in medicine as well as broader insights, such as “Always develop skills for the next level you want to achieve,” and “If you have integrity, then everything can come from that. Let integrity guide your decisions in life.”

The group has two public events this spring. On April 9, guest speaker Mary Pell Abernathy, maternal-fetal medicine physician at Indiana University School of Medicine, will discuss the book “How Women Rise” by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith. On April 21, Julie A. Freischlag, chief executive officer of Wake Forest Baptist Health and dean of Wake Forest School of Medicine, will speak to the group, and Dolores Stolte will be recognized for her gift to the program.

For more information, contact Caroline Woods.