Women for Oncology: How do they do it?

Three inspirational female oncologists share their experiences of life in a man’s world and, together with an ardent male advocate, suggest how women can redress the balance.

  • Date: 20 Feb 2017

Women are still lagging behind men in the top jobs and many think that their gender has affected their career. It is not just work-life balance that holds women back, they also have to battle against societal pressure, unconscious management bias and, sadly, themselves, in the form of low self-confidence in their abilities.

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Political support is essential

Solange Peters (Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois [CHUV], Lausanne, Switzerland; Chair of the ESMO W4O Committee) is an oncologist at the top of her game who is clear that climbing the ladder is tough. “Women have to be prepared to work extremely hard—probably harder than a man in the same position—and if, like me, you have children, you need to accept that you can’t always be there for them. Perception is another obstacle, but one I am convinced we can change. We need to fight to ensure that the work of women and men is evaluated equally and to counter the view that women are too emotional. Does the future look bright for female oncologists? Although there are many active and promising young female oncologists, leadership positions are still dominated by men. I strongly believe that change will not come spontaneously and that wholehearted political support from various societies, such as ESMO, ASCO and AACR, is crucial.”

Fight for what you think is right – don’t give up

Pilar Garrido (Hospital Universitario Ramón Y Cajal, Madrid, Spain; SEOM Past President and ESMO W4O Committee Member) thinks that “having a mentor and a sponsor are critical to a successful career. These roles didn’t exist when I started out, but I was lucky enough to have the support of colleagues, family and friends. I really enjoy mentoring, both women and men. I feel very proud when my mentees achieve their goals and watching their professional development is hugely rewarding. Women are often worried about the impact of having children on their career, but my experience is that, even though I stepped back for a while, it was worth it. When challenges become obstacles, stand back to get a broader perspective and find a way around. I like to say: take your time, life is long. Fight for what you think is right, don't give up and lean on those close to you.”

The importance of national initiatives

Marina Chiara Garassino (Istituto Nazionale dei Tumori, Milan, Italy; W4O in Italy Scientific Committee Member, ESMO National Representative for Italy) highlights the value of national organisations and social media. “With only 22 oncology departments in Italy being headed by women, it is easy to see why we started the W4O in Italy initiative. Around 50 women in senior positions took part in workshops in Bologna and Milan this year, focusing on improving communication and developing their own leadership style. Social media is an integral part of life for the younger generation and our  Facebook page is proving to be a great way to get our messages across. Having two children when I started out, I know how hard it is to juggle work and family life, but with good organisation it is possible. What we really need to work on are the psychological barriers holding women back, including envy of each other and a reluctance to share ideas.

Get a good sponsor

Giuseppe Curigliano (European Institute of Oncology, Milan, Italy; ESMO W4O Committee, ESMO Media and Press, ESMO Membership and ESMO Nominating Committee Member) is emphatic about distinguishing between the roles of mentors and sponsors. A good mentor does not always make a good sponsor. Sponsorship “is about leaders grooming the next generation for the top positions. Ask someone you can respect, who values you, who is in a position to open doors and, most importantly, who will back you. You can afford to take risks when you have someone powerful to pick you up if it goes wrong. To get a sponsor: perform well, identify the best people and network outside your management chain. I didn’t really have a sponsor but I try to be a good sponsor to others. Why do I promote women in oncology? That’s easy, they perform better.”

How does ESMO support female oncologists?

  • ESMO Women for Oncology sessions at the annual ESMO Congress and the ESMO Asia congress
  • ESMO Women for Oncology Award to acknowledge female oncologists who have become leaders in the field
  • Surveys and studies to monitor the representation of women in oncology and to gain insights on how to overcome challenges in reaching leadership positions
  • Highlighting female leaders considered as models of excellence
  • Acting as a platform to connect and encourage the development of Women for Oncology initiatives at national levels

Visit the  ESMO Women for Oncology section for more information or the ESMO Women for Oncology  Facebook page #women4onco

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