The glass ceiling for female physicians in academic medicine is a well-known phenomenon; the specific experience of women oncologists is less well characterized.1-3 There are few, if any, reports focusing on the different struggles faced by female oncologists compared with their male counterparts. So I conducted an investigation of my own.
Of the 13,755 active hematologists/oncologists in the United States, 30.2% are female. Twenty-six percent of active radiation oncologists are female. These percentages are likely to increase as more women enter medical school and choose oncology as their medical specialty. In 2013, 48.4% of the 1,693 hematology and oncology fellows were female. Twenty-nine percent of 693 radiation oncology residents were female.4
The ASCO Annual Meeting represents the largest and most important meeting of oncologists in the world. The benefits of attending the Meeting are numerous, and include education, networking, and professional development. When I arrived at this year's Annual Meeting, I wondered, how well were women represented?
As a mother of three, despite my strong desire to travel to Chicago for the Meeting, numerous other obligations in my personal and professional life made my plans more complicated than I'd hoped. I decided to formally poll my female oncologist colleagues, who were also mothers and ASCO members.
Sixty percent of the 52 women polled reported that the number one decision-making factor in whether or not they attended the Annual Meeting was childcare. Surprisingly, whether or not one was presenting research at the Meeting was the determining factor for only 5.8% of the physicians I polled (Fig. 1).
Figure 1: Decision-Making Factors for Female Oncologists Regarding ASCO Annual Meeting Attendance
Given the challenges faced by “mom” oncologists, I wondered how many women did make it to ASCO. Did their numerous other obligations hold them back from benefiting by attending the Meeting? I requested the data from ASCO; to my surprise, this information was not readily available. While ASCO does ask its members to identify their gender when applying for membership, registration for the Annual Meeting does not include this detail. Similarly, ASCO does not formally track the gender of presenters at the Meeting (whether oral presentations, poster presentations, etc.). Therefore, it was only possible to compare the gender breakdown of Annual Meeting attendees who were also ASCO members, which is approximately 50% of the total attendance, per ASCO's Meetings Department.
So what do the numbers say? As of June 29, 2016, 36.16% of ASCO members were women, 61.68% were men, and 2.17% did not indicate a gender. Of 14,539 professional attendees to the Annual Meeting, and for whom ASCO had an account where gender was provided, 5,319 were female (36.6%).
This is great news! As a community, it appears that women had good representation at the ASCO Annual Meeting.
Unfortunately, since ASCO does not track the gender of all its attendees, we can’t draw any firm conclusions about the other 50% of attendees. It is certainly conceivable that men would be more likely to plan a last-minute trip to an educational meeting compared with women, who may not have the flexibility to do so given other responsibilities.
I encourage ASCO to explore the issues facing women oncologists and specifically the challenges they may face in trying to attend the Annual Meeting. ASCO may choose to follow in the footsteps of other national physician organizations that do offer childcare at their conferences, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Society of Hematology.
The risks to excluding women—even unintentionally—are dire. If women don't feel encouraged to attend national meetings, they will likely be less inclined to participate in an organization overall, less likely to submit research for a meeting, and certainly will lose out on the numerous professional benefits of attending. Without a rigorous effort to explore these challenges, the unknowns cannot be elucidated.
- Borges NJ, Navarro AM, Grover AC. Women physicians: choosing a career in academic medicine. Acad Med. 2012;87:105-14.
- Jena AB, Khullar D, Ho O, et al. Sex differences in academic rank in US medical schools in 2014. JAMA. 2015;314:1149-58.
- Burgess DJ, Joseph A, van Ryn M, et al. Does stereotype threat affect women in academic medicine? Acad Med. 2012;87:506-12.
- American Association of Medical Colleges Center for Workforce Studies. 2014 Physician Specialty Data Book. Accessed 15 June 2016.