ESMO Women for Oncology Studies Examine Female Leadership in Oncology Over Time

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Results of the European Society for Medical Oncology’s (ESMO) Women for Oncology monitoring and authorship studies were recently published by Berghoff et al in ESMO Open. They revealed that women continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions despite making up an increasing proportion of the oncology workforce.

The new study aims to update findings from a previous study published by Hofstädter-Thalmann et al in ESMO Open, led by the ESMO Women for Oncology Committee for the years 2015 and 2016. The new research provides data collected over a 3-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 organizations 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 Cristiana Sessa, MD, of the Oncology Institute of Southern Switzerland, Bellinzona.

Updated Findings

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. A similar development was seen in female representation on the boards of professional societies, which grew from 30% to 36% over the 3 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 who were the 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.

Interestingly, the authors also found that societies with a female president had a higher proportion of female board members across these periods.

According to study coauthor Anna Berghoff, MD, PhD, of the Medical University of Vienna, 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,” said Dr. Berghoff. “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.”

The study authors concluded, “Reported progress towards gender equality in career development in oncology is real but slow. Women in leadership positions are essential for encouraging young women to aspire to and work towards similar or greater success. Therefore, continued monitoring is needed to inform… initiatives to promote gender balance at all stages of the career pathway.”

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The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.