As a young girl in Brooklyn, Paula Johnson always knew that she wanted to be a doctor someday. She had a love for science, a passion for helping others, and a cause—her beloved grandmother. Johnson has described her grandmother as a world-traveling, dancing woman who “loved life,” until suddenly succumbing to depression at age 60—a condition that was diagnosed too late to save her life.
In Johnson’s acclaimed TED Talk, “His and Hers…Healthcare,” she explains that even though women are 70 percent more likely than men to experience depression, they are misdiagnosed 30–50 percent of the time. The reason for this comes down to implicit gender biases in medicine and research, which leads to the lack of quality healthcare for women. As Johnson famously told audiences, “It’s my grandmother’s struggles that have really led me on a lifelong quest.” Because of her grandmother, she had dedicated her life to ensuring that women receive the healthcare they deserve and to the well-being and advancement of women.
Johnson’s TED Talk has earned over 1,133,000 views, and is now recommended as one of the 10 Talks by Women That Everyone Should Watch.
Johnson has been a lifelong pioneer, advocate, scientist, and changemaker in the field of women’s health.
Because of her education as a cardiologist, she was among the first medical professionals to point out that the textbook “standard” symptoms of a heart attack are usually those experienced by men, whereas women may show entirely different symptoms. This was the basis for Johnson’s research because women’s biological differences from men aren’t always taken into account when diagnosing diseases or prescribing treatment.
“Men and women are different down to the cellular and molecular levels,” said Johnson in her TED Talk. “From our brains to our hearts, our lungs, our joints. And we’ve learned that there are major differences in the ways that women and men experience diseases, but we’re not making the investment in fully understanding the extent of these sex differences. We aren’t talking about what we have learned, and routinely applying it in clinical care. So we have to ask ourselves the question: why leave women’s health to chance?”
Johnson, the Grayce A. Young Family Professor of Medicine in Women’s Health at Harvard Medical School, a professorship named for her mother, and professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, founded the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and she’s currently a member of the National Academy of Medicine, as well as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Today she serves as the 14th President of Wellesley College—the first Black woman to occupy that role. In this new academic role, Johnson has worked to create new opportunities for women to achieve their aspirations across all fields.
Why Her Work Matters
Johnson has dedicated her life to the cause of equality. She has called out gender biases in medicine and worked to receive funding for women’s health sciences.
Furthermore, she’s sought to create change at the ground level. When people ask how they can help, she gives a straightforward answer: “As a woman, you have to ask your doctor, and the doctors who are caring for those you love: is this disease or treatment different in women? Now, this is a profound question, because the answer is likely yes, but your doctor may not know the answer, at least not yet. But if you ask the question, your doctor will very likely go looking for the answer. And this is so important, not only for ourselves, but for all of those whom we love.”
Most recently, Johnson co-chaired the first evidence-based study on sexual harassment in academia, specifically in STEM fields, under the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. This ground-breaking study not only describes the extent of the problem but recommends strategies to prevent sexual harassment and to change climate and culture in organizations.
Celebrating Her Social Justice Achievements
Eastern Bank’s Celebration of Social Justice is now in its 30th year of honoring local individuals and nonprofits who have achieved outstanding success in addressing social justice issues. In support of its 2018 Targeted Grant category of Advancing Women, Paula Johnson—physician-scientist, innovator, and educator—is this year’s award recipient.
Please join us in congratulating Johnson on this honor and for advancing, promoting, and defending women’s education, health, and well-being.