In the Hillary Clinton Era, Is There a Glass Ceiling at ASCO's Annual Meeting?

In the Hillary Clinton Era, Is There a Glass Ceiling at ASCO's Annual Meeting?

Miriam Knoll, MD

Jun 30, 2016

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.


  1. Borges NJ, Navarro AM, Grover AC. Women physicians: choosing a career in academic medicineAcad Med. 2012;87:105-14.
  2. Jena AB, Khullar D, Ho O, et al. Sex differences in academic rank in US medical schools in 2014. JAMA. 2015;314:1149-58.
  3. Burgess DJ, Joseph A, van Ryn M, et al. Does stereotype threat affect women in academic medicine? Acad Med. 2012;87:506-12.
  4. American Association of Medical Colleges Center for Workforce Studies. 2014 Physician Specialty Data Book. Accessed 15 June 2016.



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Noelle K. LoConte, MD, FASCO

Jul, 06 2016 1:19 PM

This seems like an important study that should be expanded beyound 52 women. I wonder if the very low number for presentation being a significant factor is how few submit an abstract in any one year. 

Amye Tevaarwerk, MD

Jul, 11 2016 12:31 PM

Agree -- I'd be very interested to see how the gender of presenters breaks down, esp if one were to focus on the first author gender and "importance" e.g. abstract, vs poster, vs oral discussion, vs oral abstract.

I left the meeting early this year (after only 24 hrs) because of the difficulties of pumping as a nursing mother while at ASCO. It is possible that there is dedicated pumping/nursing space, but I sure couldn't find it. Even if I could have, given the size of the meeting space I would have lost a good of time walking back and forth from this space.

ASCO Admin

Jul, 13 2016 10:50 AM

On behalf of the ASCO Meetings teams, we are so sad that you weren’t able to stay at the Annual Meeting this year. While we do have a nursing/pumping room (N227a), equipped with private rooms, we understand that this information was challenging to find. That’s great feedback, and we will work on promoting the location in more places for 2017. If you ever have a question onsite, please don’t hesitate to stop by one of our Information Desks or Concierge Services where our team can help solve problems. We know it’s challenging to balance work, travel, and family, and we hope that the dedicated nursing/pumping room helps ease the burden a bit.

-Rachel Mecklenberger, ASCO Staff

Miriam Knoll, MD

Jul, 11 2016 3:17 PM

Thanks so much for your comments. I agree- we need to systematically study these issues for them to be accurately characterized...and then adequately addressed!

It turns out that there is a nursing room at the Annual Meeting- and ASCO has committed to advertising this more effectively for the 2017 Annual Meeting.


Virginia D. Anderson

Jun, 01 2017 11:36 PM

For 2017 ASCO Annual Meeting attendees, the nursing mothers' room is again located in the North Building, Level 2, Room N227A of McCormick Place. There are private stations with a chair, small table, and power outlet, and the room has a small fridge for storage.

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