Without question, women researchers have made valuable contributions to the field of oncology. From American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) co-founder Dr. Jane C. Wright’s promotion of chemotherapy to Dr. Jimmie Holland’s emphasis on psychosocial support in the cancer community, women are making an impact. Why is it, then, that female researchers in oncology are consistently discriminated against through lack of funding, limited staff numbers and scarce leadership opportunities when compared to their male counterparts—and how can it be addressed?
A GLARING GAP
In a 2019 open letter, Margaret Foti, CEO of American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), addresses disparities that, despite our social progression in the past few decades, still exist between men and women in cancer research and medicine.
“Despite the major impact of women on cancer research and medicine, their advancement and career opportunities have moved forward at a slow, inconsistent and inadequate pace,” she writes.
Foti shares that only 27 percent of prizes awarded in biology and biomedicine are awarded to women. This echoes the awarding of grant money, according to a 2019 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. This research found that on average, first-time male lead investigators were awarded $41,000 more than their female counterparts.
During formative career stages, grants and awards can propel the trajectory of a researcher’s work—both present and future. In addition to the perceived value these prizes may accredit to the researcher and their work, receiving such resources allows novel or innovative research to be well-funded and experience better outcomes. In other words, it can set a researcher up for success.
These gaping disparities led to a pair of 2017 lawsuits filed by two senior female scientists against San Diego’s prestigious Salk Institute for Biological Studies. The two women, one of which studies HIV and cancer genes, alleged long-standing gender discrimination such as limited female staff, the denying of further resources and opportunities and the unbalanced distribution of funding between male-run labs and female-run labs.
One year later, Salk Institute settled with the scientists, but the lawsuits highlight the unfortunate reality for many women in the medical research realm.
BEHIND EVERY WOMAN
Women researchers are important, especially in cancer science. For example, women researchers in cancer science have emphasized the importance of psychosocial support because they more easily recognize that cancer can be an emotional ride. They also address issues specifically related to female patients, such as the potential ineffectiveness of immunotherapy when a patient is young and female. By highlighting such shortcomings in current cancer science, women researchers have the ability to alter traditionally white, male-centric studies and trials to be more inclusive and widely beneficial.
Diversity is a cornerstone of medicinal advancements as cancer affects everyone. Researchers of different social identities bring awareness, representation and new perspectives to both general and specific areas of study based on their own experiences, thus ensuring that the medical community can better accommodate underserved groups and their unique set of concerns. Key players achieving health care milestones should get not only the recognition they deserve, but the means to get there in the first place—regardless of social identity.
To ensure this, there are numerous organizations that have popped up in recent years that are committed to lifting women researchers up, especially in the oncology field.
The Women Who Conquer Cancer (WWCC) program, an arm of Conquer Cancer: the ASCO Foundation, is dedicated to advancing and celebrating the careers of young women researchers. Since its inception in 2013, the program has raised $5 million to award women scientists starting out in their career, providing crucial funding.
WWCC has additionally awarded numerous Young Investigator Awards, a year-long research and travel grant given to impressive female oncologists making huge impacts in the fight against cancer. The award is funded by Women Leaders in Oncology (WLO), an organization similarly concerned with connecting and empowering women researchers in oncology.
For the past five years, WWCC has also rewarded two Mentorship Awards annually to women in oncology who are considered role models and mentors to both men and women in training. According to WWCC, these awards aim to recognize and promote the work of women mentors, ultimately narrowing career gender disparities as mentors “play a critical role in the development of the next generation of oncologists.”
“Women Who Conquer Cancer Mentorship Awards recognize extraordinary female leaders in oncology who demonstrate an outstanding commitment to the professional development of their oncology colleagues as clinicians, educators and researchers,” said Dr. Sandra M. Swain, founder of WWCC, in a previous interview. “We are inspired by their example.”
WWCC hopes that these Mentorship Award recipients, in addition to the research it funds through grants, continue to inspire other women in the oncology research field.
“I started this program to provide targeted support to an underrepresented group of oncology researchers, and the early success has been truly inspirational,” said Swain. “I am devoted to expanding the reach so that more early-career female investigators can achieve their professional goals.”
FROM THE TOP
At the higher level, ASCO named Dr. Julie Gralow as its new chief medical officer in November 2020, and she hopes to close gender gaps in leadership roles.
“While we’ve got plenty of women, both community physicians and academics, in oncology, it’s at the leadership level where we still have some of those gender gaps,” said Gralow in a previous interview. “But [women] who rise through the ranks, at least in academics, and get promoted […] drop out for a lot of reasons. And some of them are fine reasons, but we’ve got to get rid of the ones that aren’t.”
With real commitment from leadership, Gralow believes equality is attainable. This is also what the American Cancer Society’s ResearcHERS: Women Fighting Cancer program advocates for.
Like WWCC, ResearcHERS devotes its efforts to not only empowering women in the oncology field but sustaining the “pipeline of talent.” The program encourages women in the field to become a ResearcHERS Ambassador, raising funds and spreading awareness to other women toward important cancer research conducted by people just like them.
Ultimately, this engagement would ideally impact the number of women in leadership roles and ensure the future success of all women in oncology, from top to bottom—and continue to advance science as a whole.
“What is at stake is more than just equity, fairness, or justice,” writes Foti in her AACR open letter. “We need women working in cancer science, indeed in all the sciences.”