Contrary to what Sherlock Holmes ’ Dr. John Watson might have you believe, men with mustaches in the medical field are relatively rare — they make up less than 20 percent of the academic medical leadership, according to a recent study published in The BMJ . More jarring, however, is the fact that women in department leadership positions are even rarer.

Although the number of women in medicine has risen significantly in recent decades — from comprising only 9 percent of U.S. medical students to about 50 percent more recently — the proportion of women in academic medicine remains low. The new research suggests only 13 percent hold leadership positions in their respective science department.

Researchers say the lack of female representation in academic leadership positions is a serious problem not just because of the “strong ethical argument for equality,” but also for practical reasons. Previous studies have found having women as leaders led to better performance.

“This is a serious issue. It has implications for diversity, for equality as well as workplace success,” researcher Eleni Linos told Medical Daily in an email. “We thought more people would pay attention to this serious issue by making a joke or a quirky analogy to the number of men with mustaches. We wanted to draw attention to this important issue by making a light-hearted joke about how rare women really are.”

For the study, researchers analyzed more than 1,000 clinical department leaders at top U.S. medical schools funded by the National Institutes of Health. They looked at each leader’s medical specialty, institution, and gender, and recorded the presence of mustaches on men.

Researchers found the proportion of female department leaders ranged from 0 to 26 percent across institutions, and 0 to 36 percent across medical specialties. Meanwhile, mustachioed men covered more ground, ranging from 0 to 37 percent in presence across institutions, and 2 to 31 percent across specialties.

In their study, the researchers said there are two ways to address the sex disparities that exist in the academic medical leadership: “ by increasing the number of women in leadership positions or by asking men in leadership positions to shave their mustaches.” However, since asking men to get rid of their facial hair is “discriminatory,” and could have "detrimental effects on workplace satisfaction and emotional wellbeing," researchers suggested that employers hire and promote more women. Adopting policies against discrimination and sexual harassment, and introducing family benefits and offering paid parental leave will also help retain women in these positions.

“Obviously things like mentorship, anti-discrimination policies, [and] family leave for both genders are excellent strategies, but work flexibility and having set criteria in place before starting the hiring or promotion process are also strategies with some evidence behind them that can be implemented to increase women’s representation in leadership roles,” Mackenzie Wehner, lead author of the study, told Medical Daily .

Their suggestions should help raise the number of female leaders in academic medicine while also ensuring there’s an adequate amount of facial hair throughout the workplace.

Source: Wehner M, Nead K, Linos K, Linos E. Plenty of Moustaches But Not Enough Women: Cross Sectional Study of Medical Leaders. The BMJ. 2015.