Diversity Reflection – Mary Lou Voytko

Mary Lou Voytko
Mary Lou Voytko has rarely viewed gender as a barrier to meeting her professional goals.

“I was raised in a family that never said you couldn’t,” she said. The oldest of five children, she was the first in her family to attend college. That path eventually led to a PhD in Anatomy, then postdoctoral work at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and ultimately a faculty position at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

More than likely, Voytko’s maternal grandmother played a part in the journey that led her to become a professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy; Director of the Women’s Health Center of Excellence for Research, Leadership, Education (WHCOE); and, most recently, Associate Dean of Faculty Development at the Medical Center.

“I have a very strong matriarchal family,” she said. “My grandmother was really one of my big role models.”

Married in her late 20s – “unheard of at that time,” Voytko said – her grandmother had only one child and returned to work after her daughter’s birth (with her husband’s full support). In “Rosie the Riveter” fashion, she worked in manufacturing during World War II and was in the book-binding business when Voytko was growing up. In her younger years, Voytko’s grandmother and two sisters played women’s baseball, traveling “all over the east coast” for games.

“She was probably my biggest inspiration for my own personal life,” Voytko said.

Drawing from that inspiration, Voytko now works to expand opportunities for women at the Medical Center. One of the goals of the WHCOE that Voytko oversees is to enhance the recruitment, retention, professional development and promotion of women faculty members.

The Center’s Leadership Program addresses national trends within medical centers that support women in leadership but often fall short of promoting them to top positions. Today, women represent about half of the students entering medical school, nationwide, Voytko said. But the representation of female faculty members in medical schools nationally is only about 35 percent, and only 16 percent of full professors are women.

“It’s a problem within our academic systems,” Voytko said. Education and mentoring programs are working to improve ratios at WFBMC.

Voytko started the Women Faculty Mentoring Program at the School of Medicine in 2000, to link women at the junior faculty level (instructor and assistant professor) with senior faculty members (associate and full professor) in mentoring relationships.

“I saw the opportunity to create a program that would be targeted to the early career,” Voytko said. “There’s a history of men being able to take advantage of mentoring, but women tend not to think of the importance of mentoring.

“Research shows you are much less successful if you don’t have a mentor,” she said.

When Voytko introduced the Women Faculty Mentoring Program at the School of Medicine, she expected only a handful of women to express interest initially. In fact, 23 junior faculty members signed up for mentoring, and 30 senior faculty members – both men and women – volunteered to become mentors.

“The response was overwhelming,” Voytko said, adding that enthusiasm for the program continues today. “We have a lot of women who, as soon as they come on the faculty, they tell us they want to be involved.”

Other WHCOE Leadership Programs have been received with similar enthusiasm. The Career Development for Women Leaders program was modeled after the top national leadership training program for women in academic medicine – Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine (ELAM) – with the goal of providing a more affordable, more accessible option. Now in its third year, the university-based leadership program also includes women at the Reynolda campus.

Various educational opportunities, including workshops and brown bag luncheons, have also been well received. A recent workshop on “The Imposter Syndrome” addressed the self-doubt that competent people can face when they believe their success is not deserved.

“Some women never feel that they know enough for the job,” Voytko said. “If you’re an overachiever, you keep pushing ahead (and) at some point you reflect and think – my goodness, should I be at this level?” So many women expressed interest in the workshop that the Center had to offer a second session to accommodate the participants.

“It clearly resonated with our women faculty,” Voytko said.

While some women are hesitant to take part in programs like those offered by the Center – perhaps afraid “they’ll be seen as weak and needing help,” Voytko said – many are grateful for the opportunity to build skill sets that will help them meet their professional goals. The Mentoring Program in particular has made an impression.

“The program is a great recruitment tool for our women faculty,” Voytko said. And a number of women who have been promoted after participating in the Mentoring Program become mentors themselves after transitioning into their new role.

“It’s been received very well,” she said. 
Last Updated: 09-23-2013
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