Like many other readers of ASCOconnection.org, I was inspired by ASCO president Sandra Swain’s blogs on “Women in Oncology.” Those blogs and the recent publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s empowering book, Lean In, have gotten me thinking about the plight of the female oncologist.
Back when I completed oncology fellowship, my fellow female classmates and I looked around and saw no women oncologists in positions of leadership. We formed a support group which we cheekily named, “Chick Onc.” We would get together for monthly dinners where we would commiserate over our perceived failures and celebrate our successes. These women remain some of my very best friends and all of us have risen to important positions of leadership at our own institutions—go Chick Onc!
Since that time, the landscape for women oncologists has changed. We have a female ASCO president. At my institution, the incoming Chairman (or Chairwoman?) of Medicine is a woman who has done significant oncology research during her impressive career. We have a female fellowship director. At my husband’s institution, the dean of his medical school is a female oncologist and a former ASCO president.
I am proud of what female oncologists have achieved in recent years. But it’s important for all of us in oncology, both men and women, to help keep raising that bar because while we have made tremendous progress, we have a long way to go if we wish to attain gender equality in medicine. Sheryl Sandberg’s book has been lauded but also criticized for her advice to women. For the record, I agree with her point of view that in order for women to succeed, women need to “lean in” and “sit at the table.” At a recent lunchtime faculty conference at my institution, I noticed that besides myself, there were only two other women sitting at the table compared to eight men. All of the other women were sitting in chairs on the side. (Note: I take no credit for my own initiative here. The only reason why I started sitting at the table is because when I used to sit on the side, I routinely dumped my lunch down the front of my shirt.)
We can do better. I have the pleasure of mentoring two stellar female oncology fellows, both of whom have the potential to be future leaders in oncology. A regular piece of advice that I give to them is to stop apologizing for their perceived weaknesses and instead, be proud of how brilliant they are. That is in sharp contrast to the advice I give my sons when I tell them the importance of being humble. My boys ignore that advice on a regular basis and maybe that isn’t all bad. Does this point out a fundamental difference in men and women? When I look back at my early Chick Onc days, it is possible that we banded together because as women, we needed each other to validate our accomplishments. In this respect, should women become more like men? Or should society adapt to judge individuals based more on the merit of their work rather than their ability to promote themselves?
I don’t pretend to have the answers. But for my part, I’ll keep encouraging my female colleagues to join me at the table. And if we need a bigger table, so be it.