NEWS | March 19, 2015

Nation's first conference on career flexibility for biomedical faculty features insights from Howell


In what was the first-ever convening of its kind, medical school leaders from across the nation met in Boston last week to discuss how academic physicians and scientists can have thriving careers with better work-life flexibility in an era of austere academic budget cuts. Among the presenters was Lydia Howell, professor and chair of the UC Davis Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.

Dr. Lydia Howell (center) joined by fellow panelists, Prof. Magali Fassiotto from Stanford and Prof. Paula Trief from Upstate Medical Center, Syracuse, New York. Dr. Lydia Howell (center) joined by fellow panelists, Prof. Magali Fassiotto from Stanford and Prof. Paula Trief from Upstate Medical Center, Syracuse, New York.

Co-organized by seven medical schools, the American Council on Education (ACE) and the New England Network for Faculty Affairs, the “Career Flexibility for Biomedical Faculty of Today and Tomorrow: A National Conference” highlighted progress made in medical school career-flexibility policies as well as the continuing challenges such programs face. UC Davis is one of just seven schools in the U.S. that received an innovator award from ACE and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to support national efforts aimed at increasing career flexibility for faculty at medical schools nationwide.

Howell recently completed an NIH-funded study in collaboration with Amparo C. Villablanca, professor of internal medicine, which looked at family-friendly workplace policies, policies that have existed at UC Davis for more than three decades. Their analysis revealed that despite the likely needs of faculty of all ages, not many people are using the benefits.  Howell told conference attendees that the study identified many barriers to policy use, including concerns that a faculty member will burden colleagues with additional workloads or be perceived by supervisors and colleagues as less committed to his or her career, which in turn negatively affects career advancement.

Such barriers and concerns reflect negative attitudes toward flexibility, said Howell. She and Villablanca refer to this as “face-time bias” since there appears to be an unconscious negative association between lack of visibility in the workplace and perceptions about productivity and performance. Policies that allow flex hours, remote work and leaves of absence tend to reduce the number of hours seen (face-time) at work. 

“This unconscious bias can negatively influence performance reviews, compensation and advancement, even though an individual using flexible work policies may be highly productive,” said Howell.

Through UC Davis Health System’s ACE-Sloan Innovation Award, Howell and Villablanca worked with several other academic departments to address these barriers and biases through a unique approach that focuses on a compensation plan (salary) criteria as the best way to encourage a culture of work flexibility and minimize bias. They created a compensation plan toolkit to help make departments aware of these issues when creating salary criteria for faculty.

The project team, which included Kim Elsbach, professor in the UC Davis Graduate School of Management and an expert on face-time bias, made the toolkit available as an on-line resource to address all aspects of compensation. Several special sections were specifically designed to encourage a more flexible culture, and Howell’s own Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine was the first at UC Davis to implement them as a way to encourage that career flexibility.

“We have found that the criteria in a compensation plan can send a strong message about organizational values and culture,” added Howell. “An individual’s salary is a great place to catalyze changes in the work culture and environment, and find effective ways to address ongoing barriers to success.”