Women Who Conquer Cancer: Dr. Monica Morrow Challenges Double Standards in Oncology

Nov 17, 2020

Monica Morrow, MD, FACS, FASCO, does not hesitate to call out the uncomfortable differences men and women face in medicine. As chief of the Breast Service in the Department of Surgery and the Anne Burnett Windfohr Chair of Clinical Oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, she is bravely leading the next generation of oncology leaders to conquer cancer and gender stereotypes.

Dr. Morrow currently serves on ASCO’s Breast/Gynecological Oncology Measures Panel. She has served on numerous ASCO committees, is a past member of the ASCO Board of Directors, and is a past editor of ASCO Daily News. In 2009 she was recognized as a Fellow of ASCO (FASCO) in honor of her volunteer service to the organization; in 2012 she was presented with ASCO’s Gianni Bonadonna Breast Cancer Award.

Did women in leadership roles inspire your path toward chief of surgery?

MM: When I entered [my career in] surgery, it was an overwhelmingly male field, and there were no women in leadership roles. One thing that having women in leadership roles early in my career would have done is decrease the overt sexism that was accepted during those years. Early in my career, I didn’t aspire to be a chair or anything other than a practicing academic surgeon. In retrospect, a large part of the reason for that was the prevailing attitude that women were “not part of the club.” Any error by any woman was a reflection of the failings of all women.

What is the greatest hurdle facing women in oncology?

MM: The greatest hurdle for women in most professions is the ongoing double standard regarding what constitutes appropriate behavior for women and men and how this double standard impacts the leadership pathway. Women who are assertive and voice opinions are considered difficult and a variety of other negative things, whereas men who act in the same fashion are strong leaders. Until we abandon these stereotypes and make judgements based on actual achievements and performance metrics, women will continue to have difficulties assuming proportionate leadership roles.

What can be done to create more parity among men and women in medicine?

MM: As I sat waiting to interview fellowship applicants a few years ago, the faculty member introducing the program said, “I know you probably think we are all a bunch of stiffs in dark suits and white shirts and ties…” When I mentioned to him at lunch that his comment was really not acceptable to the women in the room, he was surprised and then defensive. These incidents are far too common and help create an environment where the contributions of men and women are clearly not valued equally.

Organizations should examine the salary parity of men and women, as well as equal application of promotion criteria. Much of this bias is unrecognized and, without awareness, equal opportunity will not be achieved. Both male and female leaders need to be conscious of the gender distribution of those placed on committees and in leadership roles when choosing among a pool of talented candidates.

Women in leadership roles and senior faculty positions must call out sexist behaviors when encountered in the workplace, not in a strident and angry way, but to let the individual know these are both demeaning and unacceptable.

Why is it important for donors to support women researchers?

MM: Retention of female faculty in academia is a problem. Women are an increasingly large percentage of the entry-level medical workforce, but the proportion of women at the rank of professor remains low, as does the proportion of women in leadership positions. Funding of female physician scientists, particularly at the early- and mid-career level, is one way to increase their success rate, providing more role models for female students, trainees, and junior faculty, and more women who are competitive for leadership positions. 

In Her Own Words:

“I didn’t need a woman in a leadership role to know that I could be a surgeon because I had been raised to believe that I could accomplish whatever I was willing to work for. What I did need was a mentor to provide advice, open doors, and to tell me how the academic game was played.”  —Dr. Monica Morrow

The Women Who Conquer Cancer series profiles some of the remarkable nominees for Conquer Cancer’s annual Hologic, Inc. Endowed Women Who Conquer Cancer Mentorship Award, which recognizes role models and mentors to men and women training to be cancer clinicians, educators, or researchers.

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