Female oncologists: Still paying the price for being a woman

At the Women for Oncology Session, Professor Solange Peters from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, presented key results from the latest survey

  • Date: 10 Oct 2016
Solange Peters ESMO Women for Oncology Chair

Solange Peters ESMO Women for Oncology Chair

ESMO Women for Oncology initiative began in 2013 and was borne from the realisation that female oncologists are under-represented in leadership positions. In an online survey this year, ESMO explored the gender-related challenges faced by oncology professionals. The survey results gave a valuable and unique insight into the perceptions of those working in oncology today.

At the Women for Oncology Session yesterday, Professor Solange Peters from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, presented key results from the survey. Of the 482 male and female participants, the majority (77%) were female and were medical oncologists (66%). Most respondents (60%) worked in a team in which there were more women than men although the responsible person in the team was male in 64% of cases.

In terms of obstacles that respondents had encountered during their career progression, finding a balance between work and family featured prominently (65% of respondents), although the belief that men were perceived as natural leaders and women were team members and supporters was also common (40% of respondents). When questioned about their thoughts on the main barriers that prevented gender equality in the workplace, regardless of gender, respondents said that a lack of work–life balance was a key factor (52% of respondents), and that social pressures were also prominent (31% of respondents).

After the session, Professor Peters commented that some of the additional survey results not presented in yesterday’s talk were rather surprising and made for uncomfortable reading. Astonishingly, 41% of surveyed female respondents said that they had encountered unwanted sexual comments, attention or advances by a superior colleague, with 69% of these encountering generalised sexist remarks and behaviours in the workplace.

How can the gender gap in oncology be closed? Half of survey respondents believed that the best approach for the oncology community to take would be to promote work–life balance. Other suggestions considered important were the development and provision of leadership training for women (response: 28.7% of males, 44.2% of females) and the offer and support of flexible working hours (response: 35.1% of males, 41.6% of females). Full results from the survey will be available from the ESMO website.

More than one-quarter (27%) of female respondents believed that their gender significantly impacted their career, compared with 14% of male respondents.

Professor Peters commented: “Lack of self-esteem was also a major barrier to professional success among women. This is an important finding because self-esteem is subjective, a perception, and you can work on and change perceptions.”

Commenting after the session, Professor Edith Perez, Vice President and Head of US Medical Affairs, Genentech/Roche BioOncology, and Professor of Medicine, Mayo Clinic, USA, said that gender inequality is an important global issue and one that is currently receiving much attention in science. She said she is pleased to see a good balance of male and female presenters at the ESMO Congress. 

Yesterday, Professor Sumitra Thongprasert was presented with the ESMO Women for Oncology Award for her passionate advocacy of female participation and leadership in the oncology workforce.

This article appeared in the Monday edition of the Daily Reporter