Skip to main content

Mustaches Outnumber Women in Med School Leadership

Yes, you read that right.
(Photo: Mega Pixel/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Mega Pixel/Shutterstock)

Women have made great strides in medicine. In what was once a traditionally male profession, women now make up about half of today's medical students. Still, major disparities remain: According to a new study, there are more mustaches—yes, mustaches—than women in leadership positions at top American medical schools.

The research is published in the British Medical Journal's "Christmas Issue," an annual collection of peer reviewed but generally quirky scientific reports. Among the other results published this year: a debunking of the so-called Curse of the Rainbow Jersey in professional cycling, a discussion of the life expectancy of elected politicians, and a survey of Bob Dylan citations in medical research.

Nineteen medical schools had a mustache density of more than 20 percent, while only seven had more than 20 percent women leaders.

The mustache team's search for scruff began with a list of the top 50 medical schools in the United States, based on National Institutes of Health grant money, which they grew into a list of 1,018 department heads. Then, they shaved that list down to those with a mustache ("for example, Copstash Standard, Pencil, Handlebar, Dali, Supermario") or more elaborate facial hair combos ("Van Dyke, Balbo, The Zappa"), based on a well-known beard-type chart. In addition to mustaches, the team also counted the number of women they encountered, which presumably went a bit more smoothly.

"We found that women accounted for 13% (137/1018) of department leaders.... Moustachioed individuals were all men and accounted for 19% (190/1018) of all department leaders," the team writes. Nineteen medical schools had a mustache density of more than 20 percent, while only seven had more than 20 percent women leaders.

There were also substantial differences by medical specialty. "Ten specialties had more than 20% moustachioed department leaders, with the thickest moustache density in psychiatry," the team writes. In psychiatry, 31 percent of department leaders had facial hair on the "upper cutaneous lip," followed by pathology (30 percent) and anesthesiology (26 percent). General surgeons and plastic surgeons had the lowest mustache rates, at two and four percent, respectively.

Women, meanwhile, were most visible in obstetrics and gynecology (36 percent of department leaders), pediatrics (31 percent), and dermatology (23 percent).

"Sex discrepancies in leadership are distressingly common across specialties," the researchers write, though there are viable strategies for reducing the facial hair—and, more seriously, gender—gap. "Many employers have taken steps to reduce these gaps by adopting policies against discrimination and sexual harassment, by introducing family friendly benefits, and by offering paid parental leave, which have been shown to considerably improve outcomes in the female labor force." Extending those policies should help reduce sex discrepancies in medical school leadership.

There are, however, some limitations to the results. Facial hair increases others' perceptions of maturity, responsibility, and so on—even fake beards can do the trick, at least for the person wearing it. Photos could be out of date or misclassified too. "Also, we could not confirm that moustaches in photos were real," the researchers admit, "although two authors are trained in dermatology and skilled at examining hair growth."


Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.