Women Leaders: Nancy Andrews on Women in Medicine

I got interested in science in high school and went to Yale thinking that I was going to become a scientist and probably a professor. But in my senior year, some friends from Yale Medical School persuaded me to apply to a combined M.D./Ph.D. program so that I could work in areas of science that wouldn't be as open to me with only a Ph.D. This was in the late 1970s, and it never occurred to me that being a woman might be a problem. That was probably a good thing.

As part of the M.D./Ph.D. program, I did a year and a half of medical school at Harvard, went to MIT for three and a half years, and then returned to Harvard for my final two years of medical school. I never felt at a disadvantage, but there were moments in my training when I would suddenly become aware that there weren't a lot of other women in my position. I remember being on rounds with an all-male team and hearing the residents and doctors talk about women patients and nurses and women faculty in ways that shocked me.

After medical school, I became a pediatrics resident. I didn't do it because it was what was expected of women. I did it because it was the direction of my research and interests. I think that people were expecting me to head toward a clinical career, which was more common for women. But I just kept moving forward and didn't really pay any attention. I wanted to do research because I liked the idea that I could be my own intellectual boss. In clinical medicine, it's a different kind of reward. I enjoyed working with kids and with their families. But it was always responding to something, rather than creating something.

I deliberately chose to wait to have my children until after I was finished with my formal training. As soon as I could see my way to my first faculty position, I got pregnant with my daughter. I was lucky because it happened basically when I wanted it to. My son was born three years later. In retrospect, I was probably pretty naive about trying to do all those things at once, but it worked out. I think the most important thing is to have your partner sharing in the responsibilities. I had that.

I spent most of my career at Harvard and was a dean at the medical school when I decided to move to Duke. I wanted to do something new.

I was surprised that there was so much publicity about my move, but I understand why: there are still very few women running top medical schools. Even the word "dean" conjures up a male image for many people. I saw that firsthand when my husband and my children and I visited a school where Duke staff members had made an appointment for the new dean of the medical school—but neglected to provide the principal with a vital piece of information. The principal, a man, held out his hand to my husband and said, "Ah, you must be the man of the moment." And my husband just said, "No, it's actually her." The principal recovered quickly, and said, "Well, all the better," which was a great response.

My goal is pretty simple: to convince our students and faculty that they can go out and do whatever they want to do. People hear so much advice, including a lot of bad advice, about what they can or cannot do. I worry a lot when people come in and say, "I was told I can't do both science and medicine," or "I was told I can't do medicine and be very involved with my family." When young people hear those things, they can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

If there are unwritten rules that don't make sense to me, I challenge them and see if I can change them.