In the latest workforce study for oncology conducted by ASCO, approximately 30% of practicing oncologists were women. However, this number is expected to grow. Over the last few decades, women have comprised at least 50% of many medical school classes. This trend continues in oncology, with women representing more than 50% of the residencies in internal medicine, OB-GYN, and pediatrics, though surgical residency programs lag behind the 50% number. Oncology fellowship programs, on the other hand, have followed the trend with a high percentage of women.
In academic medicine, assistant and even associate professor ranks are well represented by women. However, full professors, division chiefs, department chairs, deans, and chancellors—the leadership positions within academic medicine—have very few women in those ranks.
I am honored to be the 52nd President of ASCO this year. I am only the seventh woman to hold this important role. Other past female ASCO Presidents include Rose Ruth Ellison, MD, FASCO (1974-75); Karen H. Antman, MD, FASCO (1994-1995); Margaret A, Tempero, MD, FASCO (2003-2004); Sandra J. Horning, MD, FASCO (2005-2006); Nancy E. Davidson, MD, FASCO (2007-2008); and Sandra M. Swain, MD, FASCO (2012-2013).
How can we enhance and support the role of women leaders in oncology? This process needs to start very early during medical education to promote leadership skills during those critical, formative educational years. Here are some ways we can do this:
- Help female medical school students get involved early with oncology interest groups, which help build skills for interacting with multidisciplinary oncology teams, and also encourage leadership roles within these student organizations.
- Match medical students, residents, and fellows with research opportunities that will enhance their goals—ranging from clinical to basic research.
- Encourage early-career mentorships—this represents one of the most critical opportunities for shaping a woman’s career in oncology. Aligning with the right mentor (male or female) can really help focus goals.
- Promote the development of leadership skills—developing self-confidence and the ability to be assertive while learning from criticism are important traits for women to master. Professional leadership programs at home institutions or through ASCO can provide valuable assistance with this goal.
- Connect promising early-career oncologists with career sponsorship—someone beyond a mentor who can help with networking, introductions, opportunities, and setting the stage for success.
- Help identify key role models who can demonstrate how to work productively and as a collaborative team member.
- Encourage involvement in professional societies such as ASCO—volunteering on committees, applying for programs such as the Leadership Development Program, and learning from others across the country and globally about oncology issues enhances the educational process for women in oncology and opens new opportunities.
- Recommend obtaining additional leadership training with an advanced degree, such as an MBA with a focus on health care or participating in the ELAM (Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine) program.
- Support other women in oncology through programs such as the Women Who Conquer Cancer (WWCC)—a Conquer Cancer Foundation of ASCO initiative that funds research by female physician-scientists through Young Investigator Awards.
The future is very bright for women leaders in oncology. However, this will take active engagement by trainees, early-career oncologists, mentors, and sponsors to assist women in the oncology workforce to advance into leadership roles within their home institutions, practices, or national societies.