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Female representation at the top of the oncology field has hit a plateau

With modest progress being made in the gender balance of the oncology field in recent years, women continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions despite making up an increasing proportion of the oncology workforce.

21 Oct 2021

That is what results of the recently published ESMO Women for Oncology monitoring and authorship studies revealed.
Following on from a previous study led by the ESMO Women for Oncology Committee for the years 2015 and 2016, the new research provides updated data, collected over a three-year period from 2017 to 2019 with the collaboration of various national and international oncology societies, on the number of women serving as board members or presidents of professional organisations and on the share of female speakers at congresses worldwide.

“As the first project of its kind to collect such a large amount of reliable data on an international scale, this research offers a global perspective on how female oncologists’ access to leading roles in their field has evolved in recent years and allows us to make comparisons both over time and across regions,” said study author Prof. Cristiana Sessa, Oncology Institute of Southern Switzerland, Bellinzona.

Its results showed a slight upward trend in women being invited to present at oncology congresses, where the share of female speakers increased from 32% in 2017 to 37% in 2019, and a similar development was seen in female representation on the boards of professional societies, from 30% to 36% over the three years. Despite these relative increases, however, both types of posts continued to be disproportionately held by men throughout the study period.

Data was additionally collected on the proportion of women among first authors and last authors of papers published in five of the most influential oncology journals. In each year, women were significantly more likely to be the first author (37-41%) than the last author (24-30%), the latter being the more senior position indicative of a leadership role in the published research.

According to study co-author Anna Berghoff, Medical University of Vienna, Austria, the findings illustrate that gender equality still has not been achieved in oncology: “The number of women leading cancer research, discussion and decision-making appears to have plateaued, which is a concern because more female leaders are needed today to help the next generation of women aim for and reach top positions,” she said.

The existence of a virtuous cycle in this respect also emerged from our research, where the proportion of women on a society’s board was positively associated with the number of female speakers at its congresses.

Prof. Anna Berghoff

Sessa added: “The ongoing effort by ESMO Women for Oncology to review developments in closing the oncology gender gap as they unfold not only serves to improve our medical community’s awareness of the areas where faster progress is needed, but will also inform additional activities to foster female empowerment and ensure equal access to career development opportunities in the future.”

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