At Weill Cornell Medicine, Family is a Priority

When Dr. Rache Simmons has a sick child to stay home with, the consequences are far greater than a few unanswered phone calls and unread e-mails.

There are patients whose appointments won't be kept and students whose classes won't be taught. Like many members of the Weill Cornell Medicine community, Dr. Simmons, the Anne and Edwin Weiskopf Professor of Surgical Oncology, plays many roles at the Medical College, and when circumstances conspire to keep her home, her absence is palpable.

To keep those absences to a minimum, the Medical College has recently partnered with Bright Horizons, an organization that offers emergency child and elder care.

"It's a way for people who work at Weill Cornell to not have to take a day off if your child is sick or your regular child care falls through," said Dr. Simmons, who recently took advantage of the program when her child care provider was out of town.

"I had a few days' notice that I was going to need help," Dr. Simmons said. "I had office hours scheduled all day and a fundraiser speech that night, and there was no way I could cancel either."

So Dr. Simmons called Bright Horizons, which sent a child care worker to her home to look after her son.

"She was lovely and my son was thrilled to pieces," Dr. Simmons said.

Weill Cornell Medicine Child Care

The child care service is a joint effort between the Weill Cornell Medicine Human Resources Department and the Office of Faculty Diversity in Medicine and Science, a program established in 2009 to increase the numbers of women — especially minority women — in teaching and research. Headed by Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Professor Dr. Debra Leonard, the office aims to cultivate and sustain a diverse faculty through recruitment, mentoring, promotion and retention. Dr. Simmons serves as director of gender diversity.

Dr. Leonard notes that plenty of women start in medicine, but there are factors that often keep them from advancing into leadership positions and growing in their careers at the same pace as men. Getting to the bottom of the problem requires raising awareness of societal biases that keep women from moving on to higher career paths — and establishing viable programs to address them. In 2010, the office sponsored a series of workshops on success strategies for medical students, postdocs, fellows and junior faculty, with focus groups on racial, ethnic, gender and LGBT issues. Individual events have explored such topics as mentorship in academic medicine and the work/life balance.

The diversity office also conducted a faculty climate survey in which child care emerged as a priority for both genders. Currently, Weill Cornell has no daycare facility — which prompted the contract with Bright Horizons. More than 600 faculty and staff have registered with the emergency child care program since it was created. "And it's not just women," said Dr. Leonard. "Almost as many men have signed up." But the fact remains that even today, women still tend to carry the brunt of child care or the responsibility for looking after aging parents, says Dr. Leonard. "Even though more men are taking on child and elder care roles," she said, "there is a strong belief that it's a woman's job."

Employees can give a two-hour notice to either have a child care worker come to their home or drop their child off at Bright Horizons' Lexington Avenue location.

For many women, another obstacle to advancement is hesitancy to be tough negotiators. Both Drs. Leonard and Simmons say that most women don't feel as comfortable as men in negotiating matters like salary, promotion and the assignment of laboratory and clinical space. "Our entire professional lives are about negotiating," says Simmons. "But women simply do not feel that the playing field is level for them. They have to walk a finer line than men when it comes to being aggressive about their careers."

Through Weill Cornell's partnership with Bright Horizons, employees can give a two-hour notice to either have a child care worker come to their home or drop their child off at Bright Horizons' Lexington Avenue location. The program also offers elder care, allowing employees who care for a parent or older relative to have backup care options.

Augustyne McLean, an administrative manager in the anesthesiology department, has used Bright Horizons twice since it was made available to Medical College employees. Usually McLean takes her 6-year-old son to the before- and after-school care his school provides, but when school is closed for a holiday that McLean herself doesn't share, she found herself using the all-day care at her local YMCA.

"With Bright Horizons, I was able to reserve a spot online and fill out all the paperwork online," McLean said. "Someone got back to me right away. It all went so smoothly. It was a really good experience."

The partnership with Bright Horizons is the first in several planned steps the Medical College hopes to take to help employees find a better balance between their work lives and home lives.

"We want to give employees help wherever they need it," said Lisa Abbott, senior director of human resources. "This is just one step. We are looking at full-time child care and anything else that makes working at the Medical College a better experience."

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