Working Towards Equality for Women in Oncology

  • Date: 08 Mar 2016
  • Author: Pilar Garrido, Cristiana Sessa, Giuseppe Curigliano
ristiana Sessa, Giuseppe Curigliano, Pilar Garrido

From left: Cristiana Sessa, Giuseppe Curigliano and Pilar Garrido

Times are changing for professional women in oncology. Over the last few decades there has been a steady increase in the number of women entering the field, which is reflected in the year-on-year growth in female membership of the European Society for Medical Oncology. In 2000, women made up just 20% of ESMO members. Now that figure has nearly doubled. Women now make up half of all ESMO members aged under 40 years.

International Women’s Day on March 8 celebrates the significant gains that have been achieved over the past decades towards equality for women. But it is also a reminder that we still have a long way to travel towards true equality.

Lack of visibility: advocating for gender balance in leadership ranks

When we look to the leadership ranks, in clinics, laboratories, universities, editorial boards, conferences and professional societies, the picture is not so balanced. Men far outnumber women on the boards of professional oncology societies, in academic and editorial positions, and as team managers.

There is no doubt that awareness is growing of this gender disparity in oncology, but awareness is nothing without action and results. But how can we address something as long-running and institutionalised as gender bias?

Part of the challenge is to overcome the lack of visibility of professional women in oncology. Editorial boards and academic panels lack equal gender representation. Many conferences suffer from a lack of female keynote speakers, female session chairs, and female presenters. This can instil a subconscious tendency to select male speakers, chairs and presenters, because that is what they themselves are used to seeing. The problem is not a lack of suitable, qualified, dynamic female speakers; the problem is that we do not always see them.

We need to challenge ourselves to look at our own unconscious biases when putting together the faculty for events and meetings, and to actively seek gender balance for these situations. In these times, it is no longer acceptable to have all-male panels, especially when so many equally capable women are standing in the wings.

Instilling self-confidence: equal balance in career development programmes

This is also an issue facing younger women coming into the field of oncology. The lack of women in senior leadership positions in oncology can give those younger women the impression that leadership is not something within their grasp, that it is a domain largely owned by men. An ESMO survey of around 700 female oncologists around Europe found that while more than half of oncology teams were majority female, 60% of these teams had male leaders.

While measures such as quotas for senior leadership positions may be controversial, what we can do to address this imbalance is to provide more opportunities to train young women for leadership. Leadership programs should look to candidates’ competencies in the first place, but also ensure that women are equally represented among the next generation of oncology leaders. A balance between female and male participants will need to be observed when making the selection of attendees – as is already being undertaken for the 2016 ESMO Leader Generation Programme.

This will also ensure that these young women and those who follow them have female leaders to look to as role models and mentors. This is particularly important when it comes to helping both men and women achieve the work-life balance so many of us strive for.

Work/family life balance: everyone's responsibility

One of the main challenges identified by the ESMO’s survey for women working in oncology was achieving a balance between work and family. This should not be an issue for women alone. If men are enabled and encouraged to balance work with family life, which will empower women to be able to do the same. But this is a system-wide problem, not limited to oncology or even to medicine.

However as more women assume leadership roles, and are able to achieve this in harmony with family – and as more men are able to do the same – it sends a message to the next generations that these things are not mutually exclusive, and that balance is a worthy goal to aspire to. We also need to develop policies that support flexibility, in order to overcome this issue of work–life balance. Much can be learned from the business world, where more women are succeeding in leadership positions.

Supporting networks and mentoring

Networks are another important way that women can support and learn from each other. Initiatives such as the ESMO Women for Oncology network are using social media to bring women that work in the oncology field together across geographic and speciality boundaries. ESMO Women for Oncology also means organising face-to-face meetings, such as dedicated session at the annual ESMO congress. Other networking and learning opportunities are being developed at the national level, in countries such as Italy and Greece. These sessions not only raise awareness about the issues that professional women in oncology face, but also give recognition to individuals who are making significant contributions towards improving the situation for female oncologists, through awards. ESMO is also constantly monitoring the situation for women in the oncology workforce through studies and surveys, which will help identify the issues, and work towards solutions.

It is also valuable to network outside oncology and work with other medical societies to support women across the profession. Mentors and sponsors of women’s careers are also key. For an early-career oncologist, mentorship can offer significant assistance and support towards a successful career.

Empowering diversity for better professional results

Men and women have different ways of thinking, working and looking at problems; there is no denying that. But rather than aim for a homogenous workforce, we should acknowledge and celebrate the differences. Women’s voices, opinions and perspectives need to be listened to as much as men’s voices, opinions and perspectives. The more we can incorporate a diversity of views into our practice and our work, the better the results for our profession and our patients.

Share your thoughts on this topic by joining the discussion on the ESMO Women for Oncology Facebook page.

On International Women’s Day, the ESMO Women for Oncology Committee flags the challenges female oncologists face in...

Posted by ESMO Women for Oncology on Tuesday, 8 March 2016

This article was produced on behalf of the ESMO Women for Oncology Committee