Mustaches Outnumber Women In Med School Leadership

There aren't a lot of women in medical leadership positions. In fact, at NIH-funded medical schools there are more men with mustaches than women with tenure

(Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso/Vocativ)
Dec 16, 2015 at 6:30 PM ET

Only 13 percent of department heads at top-50 NIH-funded medical schools are women. That’s utterly unacceptable. A new study published in The British Medical Journal sought to quantify the deficit of women in leadership using an unusual metric: the mustache. According to the study, it’s not just men who outnumber women in medical leadership positions—even the small subset of men with mustaches are more prevalent in leadership roles than women (all women).

“We compared the proportion of women in leadership positions with the proportion of individuals with mustaches,” the authors write. “We chose to study mustaches as the comparator because they are rare…and we wanted to learn if women were even rarer.” The sad truth? The researchers found 190 men with mustaches ensconced in top medical positions—and only 137 women.

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The number of women entering the medical field has skyrocketed in recent years; about half of all U.S. medical students are now female. But the number of women who enter academic medicine has remained stubbornly low. According to the study, right now, only 21 percent of full medical professors are women. And it’s not just a tragic gender disparity—it’s bad for business. Studies have shown that businesses with more female leaders perform better on average than less diverse workplaces. It is in academic medicine’s best interest to bring more women into the field.

One of the best ways to do that is to highlight the gender disparity in academic medicine—and this study does just that. The authors analyzed 1,018 medical department leaders by searching institutional websites for the chair, chief or head of each specialty. They then recorded each leaders’ gender and whether or not they had a mustache.

The BMJ’s annual Christmas issue features real science on offbeat topics, like whether Brits or Americans have worse teeth or where, exactly, the Christmas spirit is located in the human brain.

And the scientists take their data collection seriously:

We defined a mustache as the visible presence of hair on the upper cutaneous lip and included both stand alone mustaches (for example, Copstash Standard, Pencil, Handlebar, Dali, Supermario) as well as mustaches in combination with other facial hair (for example, Van Dyke, Balbo, The Zappa). Department leaders with facial hairstyles that did not include hair on the upper lip (for example, Mutton Chops, Chin Curtain) were considered not to have a mustache. We evaluated each leader for the presence of facial hair regardless of sex.

The researchers then expressed their results using a “Mustache Index”, defined as the ratio of women in medical leadership positions to mustachioed men in medical leadership. “We believe that every department and institution should strive for a mustache index ≥1,” they write. Unfortunately, several major institutions did not even achieve 0.5—that is, there are either so many mustaches or so few women in leadership positions that mustache-sporting men are at least twice as prevalent in these positions as women are. Here are the most egregious offenders according to the Mustache Index:

Now, the study never claimed to be perfect. The authors disclose several limitations to their analysis, mainly surrounding mustache misclassification:

Our data are only as accurate as the institutional websites: photos might be out of date, especially for senior staff who might strive to look younger. Also, we could not confirm that mustaches in photos were real, although two authors are trained in dermatology and skilled at examining hair growth.

But how can we solve the problem of gender disparity (and mustache prominence)? The researchers suggest institutions with low mustache indices solve their gender issues by either, “increasing the number of women or by asking leaders to shave their mustaches,” the authors write. “In addition to being discriminatory, the latter choice could have detrimental effects on workplace satisfaction and emotional wellbeing of mustachioed individuals.”

“Deans are left with one option: to hire, retain and promote more women.”