issue Winter 2023

Women’s Bodies Under the Microscope

By Judy Masterson
Paula A. Johnson, MD, MPH, delivers the keynote address at the 7th Annual WiSH Symposium.
Photo by Michael R. Schmidt

RFU’s 7th Annual Women in Science and Healthcare (WiSH) Symposium, “Women’s Bodies Under the Microscope: Sex Does Matter,” held Oct. 24, featured a presentation by Wellesley College President Paula A. Johnson, MD, MPH, who is working to improve health outcomes for women in the United States and around the world by revealing and confronting gender bias in medical research and clinical care.

“COVID-19 revealed a stark reality and essential truth about health care,” said Dr. Johnson. “Equal outcomes can only be achieved if, system-wide, there’s a recognition of meaningful differences. That recognition is what I have been working toward my entire career.”

The WiSH seminar was founded in 2016 to celebrate the university’s namesake, Dr. Rosalind Franklin, who played a crucial role in the discovery of the structure of DNA, and to highlight “the promise and struggles for women in science and health care,” said neuroscientist and Professor Lise Eliot, PhD, who co-chairs the lecture series.

“When research is inadequate or misleading, it distorts decision-making throughout the system.”

“Ever since 2004, when the university was renamed in her honor, Rosalind Franklin has become an inspiration for all who walk through these doors,” Dr. Eliot said. “The fact that her contributions were ignored for decades only magnifies our commitment to honor her legacy every day through our research, teaching and clinical endeavors.”

Inspired by the iconic 1955 photo of Rosalind Franklin peering through a microscope, symposium organizers aim to explore, at an elemental level, issues around race and gender and their impact on health and well-being.

“We began with a deep dive on gender bias in science and health care,” Dr. Eliot said. “The next year we turned to gender segregation in the health professions and the impact of our ubiquitous social divides on women’s advancement and women’s health.”

Dr. Johnson has combined scholarship and practice in cardiology and clinical epidemiology to research disparities based on sex and race. She has led groundbreaking national reports on the sexual harassment of women in STEM and the need for sexspecific medical research. She told symposium participants that she’s pushing for change in three key areas: research that accounts for both the biologic differences between women and men and the social and environmental factors that often determine health outcomes; clinical care that incorporates and reflects these research findings; and health policies and leadership that support the larger goal of equity.

Dr. Johnson with Provost Nancy L. Parsley, DPM, MHPE, and President and CEO Wendy Rheault, PT, PhD, FASAHP, FNAP, DipACLM.

“There’s a reason research comes first on my list,” Dr. Johnson said. “It informs every other aspect of our healthcare system, or it should. When research is inadequate or misleading, it distorts decision-making throughout the system. That’s been the case for women’s health for far too long.”

RFU is determined to advocate for gender equality through education, action and vigilance, said Provost Nancy L. Parsley, DPM, MHPE, who praised WiSH and similar national and global initiatives.

“We look forward to a time when progress overtakes the remaining challenges, and professional respect for women in science and health care becomes the cultural standard,” she said.

Judy Masterson is a staff writer with RFU’s Division of Marketing and Brand Management.