Reaching Gender Equity in Cancer Care: It's Time to Close the Gap

Reaching Gender Equity in Cancer Care: It's Time to Close the Gap

Linda R. Duska, MD, MPH

Mar 15, 2022
On March 8, the United Nations invites the world to observe International Women’s Day. In the United States, March is designated as Women’s History Month. And here in our March 2022 issue of ASCO Connection, we celebrate and honor oncology professionals who are women—and consider the progress that has been made as well as the work that still needs to be done to reach gender equity in our profession. 
 
Studies continue to show that women in medicine are disproportionately underrepresented in leadership positions, as speakers, as awardees, as authors of peer-reviewed papers, and in receipt of research funding. These are all very real problems, and there are more, of course, but the funding disparity is deeply concerning. A particularly troubling fact is that among early-career cancer researchers, women receive 30% less NIH funding than men. This has a devastating snowball effect on a woman’s career in medicine: Less early-career funding means, over time, fewer publications, more time required to translate funds into R funding, fewer awards and external markers of success, less consideration for promotions and leadership roles, less influence and authority to implement change within their own institutions and the broader system, and eventually, higher attrition from academic careers for women compared with men. The health care system shouldn’t allow, and our patients can’t afford, dedicated clinical researchers to leave academics or medicine as a result of gender-based inequality and discrimination.
 
Clinical research is the most powerful tool we have to achieve our shared vision of “a world where cancer is prevented or cured, and every survivor is healthy.” We need every possible bright and curious mind trained on the problem of cancer, building our body of knowledge, answering the questions that will improve outcomes and offer hope to patients and their loved ones. Both women and men in oncology produce innovative research ideas. Yet in addition to experiencing higher rates of discrimination and harassment, women often lack resources, support, and opportunities to establish themselves in their research careers and to transform their ideas into discoveries that will move our field forward.
 
In 2013, Women Who Conquer Cancer was founded with the primary aim of raising funds to support women conducting cancer research, to make a start at closing the gap in research funding and to help ensure that women are able to embark on—and even more importantly, stay in—clinical research careers. Throughout this issue, you will read about investigators who received early support from Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation, that has allowed them to build their careers and pursue their professional goals. We unfortunately only have the space to highlight a few of their stories, as Conquer Cancer has awarded over 560 Young Investigator Awards and Career Development Awards to women since 1984. 
 
Dedicated support for women in oncology is more important than ever, as the pressures of the pandemic have exacerbated gender-based inequality in professional spheres and pushed women out of the overall workforce at a truly alarming rate. If you are able, I encourage you to consider making a donation to help women begin and continue their cancer research careers. 
 

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