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COVID-19 pandemic takes a toll on women’s career in oncology

An ESMO Women for Oncology survey warns the health crisis is widening the gender gap as data shows that female oncologists have managed to dedicate less time to science during and after lockdowns

25 May 2021

While female oncologists were already under-represented in scientific and professional societies as leaders (ESMO Open 2018;3:e000423) and in high-ranked oncology journals as first and last authors in the pre-pandemic world (BMJ 2016;352:i847) (Lancet.2018 May 5;391(10132):1754-1756), the COVID-19 crisis has further exacerbated the gender gap in cancer research. In a survey conducted by the ESMO Women for Oncology (W4O) Committee in June 2020, women reported to have spent less time on scientific activities during last year’s lockdowns compared to what reported by male participants, with a trend remaining steady after confinement.

Since women have been at the forefront of the health emergency since its early times, accounting for 76% of healthcare workers in Europe, the W4O Committee launched the initiative to assess the impact of the pandemic on lives of female and male oncologists and to identify possible gender-related differences. Survey results suggest that women have paid the highest price in terms of research productivity. This is in line with other studies recently conducted reporting that women’s posting rate on preprint servers has slowed during the pandemic (Nature 581, 365-366 (2020)) and that they represent one third of all authors publishing papers on COVID-19 (BMJ Global Health 2020;5:e002922).

We thought that the reduction of research productivity due to the pandemic would be similar between men and women working in the oncology field, but we found that major gender gaps remain.

Prof. Pilar Garrido

“It has become apparent that women were expected to devote more time to family responsibilities and household work than men", commented ESMO W4O Chair Prof. Pilar Garrido, University Hospital Ramón y Cajal (IRYCIS), Madrid, Spain. "Authorship, however, is necessary for career progression and represents a measure of success. This under-representation of women is likely to impact especially on those who are at early stage of their career, adversely affecting their ability to compete for more senior roles and confirming that in times of crisis women are more vulnerable,” she added.

A worrisome scenario was outlined also in leadership opportunities for female oncologists. Women were less present in advisory committee or groups targeting COVID-19, their participation was generally at a hospital level rather than at regional, national or international level, and only one out of three reported taking a leadership role. “This reflects what has happened also outside the oncology field, where female leaders were under-represented in many coronavirus-related task forces at a global level. The pandemic has shown that the gender gap is still a big issue. We need gender transformative policies and commitment from people in positions of influence to drive real changes,” Garrido concluded.

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