Tuesday, April 8, 2008

EW interview: Elizabeth Travis, PhD

Elizabeth Travis, Ph.D., is the first associate vice president for women faculty programs at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. She leads an effort to "recruit, retain, and develop women faculty, a vital issue among academic medical institutions, where women remain underrepresented on the faculty and heavily concentrated at entry-level ranks." A professor in radiation oncology and pulmonary medicine, Travis notes that gender demographics at her institution do not differ greatly from national studies showing that 32 percent of all medical school faculty are women, but women represent just 10 percent of deans, department and division chairs. The Eloquent Woman blog interviewed her about the advancement of executive women in medicine and science, the role public speaking plays, and her advice to women speakers.

How did your program come about? This institution has a long-standing interest in the issue of women in medicine. Our goal is to recruit, promote, and retain; we say “do not lose a woman from the institution.” My whole career has been here. There’s a small cadre of women who’ve stayed here throughout our careers, and we finally said,’This is not our day job,’ and the administration agreed it was time to make a clear commitment.

Why this program now? This is a trend in a lot of academic health centers. Review committees are looking at leadership, and asking “where are the women?” Our program might differ: I have three full-time staff, I’m an associate vice president, and I still have a lab. I report directly to the provost, and I talk to the president.

When women physicians and scientists think about where they want to go, we want them to think of M.D. Anderson. There’s not a pipeline issue: Fifty percent of the medical school graduates are women. There’s nothing wrong with the women--we don’t need to fix the women. They may need a little more confidence; everyone can use mentoring. What they could use is more mentoring and more advocacy.

What do you mean by advocacy? It’s a little more informal. When you’re putting symposia together, maybe you put a junior faculty member in--you don’t just pick your best friends which everyone tends to do. You have to be constantly challenging yourself.

How does that play out in speaking opportunities? I organized an international meeting a year ago as a program chair and I said to my committee “Do not bring me a symposium without at least one woman speaker.” There was the usual rolling of the eyes and comments like “Don’t we want the best?” That’s used frequently to challenge women. I said “You have just insulted every woman in this organization.” One man was so keen to do this, he had a symposium with all women faculty speaking—it takes that kind of effort.

Who mentored you? The one I remember the most was during my post-doc. He mentored me through my science. We went to meetings and he’d drag you along. He’d say “Come along and meet someone in the field.” He was so highly regarded that he was bringing you forward. That spoke volumes to people.

What can women in the pipeline do? Women are less comfortable speaking. I notice how many men speak and how many women don’t. I call on women specifically if I’m chairing a meeting. But women can take the initiative, too. We do some sessions with coaches here on finding your voice, how to make you point, what this does for your career. That’s one area where women can use some help.

I sit on an advisory board at another institute with a lot of junior women, and I recommended some voice coaching for some of them. Their voices were quivering and they sounded uncomfortable--that immediately detracts from what you’re saying. I think talking in public is like a performance. That’s one of the things we can do for women: Training their voices, training them how to take command from the podium.

What do you do before speaking? After more than 25 years of public speaking, I have a little routine. I sit by myself, I get in the zone and I want to command the stage.

Were you ever nervous as a speaker? You bet! You’re always making sure you have your points down. I have to be clear that I know the points I want to make, and keep focused on that track. Sometimes my hand using the pointer shakes, so I learned to balance my elbow on my hip so that won’t happen.

Do you have other tips? You have to be comfortable in your skin and what you have on your skin. You can’t be worried about what you’re wearing. I have certain suits for my talks that are comfortable, professional, presentable. I love jewelry, but I tone it down when I give a talk. You don’t want the audience focused on what you’re wearing.

Have you ever felt a backlash? In a meeting, women are frequently not called on, or what they say is attributed to the man who speaks immediately after them. Most of what I do is talk about my science, so they may have quibbles about my interpretation, but the data are what the data are. Now that I’m in a different role, speaking about the issue of women in science and medicine, there’s sometimes pushback on that. Sometimes, with great difficulty, I have to take a deep breath, and respond, but I still bristle. If I’m going into a situation where I’m going to be challenged, I think about what I’m going to say.