By Grace Blitzer, MD; Aleksandra Kuczmarska-Haas, MD; and Emily Merfeld, MD
As trainees in oncology, we look to our mentors and faculty as guides in our career paths. As women, we study attendings who are women in an effort to understand if we could be successful in academic oncology, and if academic oncology would be a fulfilling career for us. However, there are few women in academic oncology, and it can be difficult to picture ourselves in their shoes.
Representation of women in academic oncology is an area of growing concern. While enrollment of women in U.S. medical schools has surpassed that of men, women make up only 33.3% of full-time faculty in hematology and oncology and 27.2% of full-time faculty in radiation oncology.1,2 Women are also underrepresented among leadership in the fields of academic oncology.
There are likely multiple factors contributing to gender inequality within academic oncology. The under-representation of women in leadership roles likely further propagates the problem by reduced mentorship and sponsorship for young women in academic oncology. For example, female oncologic society leadership is associated with more invited female speakers at the corresponding society’s meeting.1 Another factor is that women spend more time on domestic tasks and are more invested in activities related to raising children as compared to men.3 Additionally, survey data from university faculty indicate female faculty perform more academic service (i.e. serving on committees and performing tasks necessary for maintaining institutional day-to-day operations) to the university or department than men, which may detract from time dedicated to research publication and may contribute to burnout among female faculty.4,5 Women in academic medicine report a lower sense of belonging and a lower perception of gender equity compared to men in academic medicine.6 Women are also more likely to experience sexual harassment and gender bias, which may contribute to gender inequality in academia.4,7
Due to all the above, many women in oncology choose to pursue non-academic career paths or to switch from academia to private practice or industry.
Inequality in gender representation within academic oncology is pronounced. Yet, there is a paucity of data regarding the motivations of female physicians and scientists in opting for or against a career in academic oncology. We have joined a team of women oncologists investigating why women chose specific career paths, and we are conducting a survey to determine the key factors that affect a woman’s decision to pursue academic oncology or a non-academic oncology career. We are excited to participate in this project, both to help the oncology field move towards equal representation in academia, and so that we can better understand why the women around us chose one path and other women opted against an academic career.
The survey is open to all women oncologists practicing in the United States in any oncologic specialty (medical oncologists/hematologists, radiation oncologists, surgical oncologists, gynecological oncologists, and pediatric oncologists). We hope that this project will yield much-needed data about why women opt for or against careers in academic oncology—and, importantly, the systematic, institutional, and/or cultural barriers that may push them down their career path. We look forward to sharing our results in order to improve gender parity in our field and help future women oncologists, like ourselves.
Acknowledgment: Thank you to our mentor, Dr. Narjust Duma, and thank you to our co-authors: Drs. Wendy Allen-Rhoades, Molly Carnes, Fumiko Chino, Suzanne Cole, Reshma Jagsi, Ariela Marshall, and Susan Pitt.
Dr. Blitzer is a radiation oncology resident in the Department of Human Oncology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. She is interested in developing clinical trials and equality research including gender equity studies.
Dr. Aleksandra Kuczmarska-Haas is a chief radiation oncology resident at the University of Wisconsin. She is interested in MR-guided radiotherapy, brachytherapy, and gender equity research. Follow her on Twitter @akuczmarska.
Dr. Merfeld is a radiation oncology resident in the Department of Human Oncology at the University of Wisconsin. She is interested in outcomes research, brachytherapy, and bioethics in oncology. Follow her on Twitter @emily_merfeld.
- Lautenberger DM, Dandar VM. The State of Women in Academic Medicine 2018-2019: Exploring Pathways to Equity. Association of American Medical Colleges. 2020.
- Ahmed AA, Hwang W-T, Holliday EB, et al. Female Representation in the Academic Oncology Physician Workforce: Radiation Oncology Losing Ground to Hematology Oncology. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 2017;98:31-3.
- Jolly S, Griffith KA, DeCastro R, et al. Gender differences in time spent on parenting and domestic responsibilities by high-achieving young physician-researchers. Ann Intern Med. 2014;160:344-53.
- Beeler WH, Griffith KA, Jones RD, et al. Gender, Professional Experiences, and Personal Characteristics of Academic Radiation Oncology Chairs: Data to Inform the Pipeline for the 21st Century. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 2019;104:979-86.
- Guarino C, Borden VMH. Faculty service loads and gender: Are women taking care of the academic family? Res High Educ. 2017;58:672-94.
- Pololi LH, Civian JT, Brennan RT, et al. Experiencing the culture of academic medicine: gender matters, a national study. J Gen Intern Med. 2013;28:201-7.
- Jagsi R, Griffith KA, Jones R, et al. Sexual Harassment and Discrimination Experiences of Academic Medical Faculty. JAMA. 2016;315:2120-1.