In 2000, the European Society for Medical Oncology had a membership in the thousands, but only 20% of them were women. Today that figure has nearly doubled. This changing professional population has access to, and encouragement from, a supportive network set up by then-ESMO President Martine Piccart 5 years ago, looking into the under-representation of women in leaderships in oncology.
The ESMO Women for Oncology initiative aims to support female oncologists in reaching leadership positions by acknowledging the accomplishments of women in the field, highlighting female leaders as models of excellence, and providing a platform to endorse and connect other initiatives.
Speaking at ESMO 2018 in Munich, Dr Solange Peters said “I think one very important is mentoring, sponsoring, so people having achieved a nice career, women and men, helping women to grow – proposing their name, proposing they would be on stage and so on, this is our role.”
“The mentor is giving you advice, he’s speaking with you, so a sponsor is a person who will you take you with him to not speak with you but speak about you; taking some risk, saying, ‘I want this lady to speak about this topic.’ So it’s a little bit more risky and a commitment in front of women but you have to find these sponsors and mentors who might not be working with you in your city. So we have to really create a network where you could make people connect.”
This years winner of the ESMO Women for Oncology Award was Margaret Foti, CEO of AACR and cofounder of Women In Cancer Research (WICR) within AACR. She said “It is very rewarding for me to be recognised with this wonderful award as I have strived throughout my career to serve as a mentor to women in the cancer field. The professional success of women scientists and physicians is essential for rapid progress in cancer research, biomedical science, patient care, and public health. The AACR and I are very committed to continuing to enhance the status of women in oncology, to increase their professional opportunities, and to offer mentorship and support. If we are to significantly reduce cancer incidence, morbidity, and mortality around the world, we must facilitate the vital contributions and leadership opportunities of women in oncology.”
Previous winners include Frances Shepherd, Sumitra Thongprasert and Enriqueta Felip.
Dr Felip won the award in its first year of presentation at ESMO 2014, for her work calling attention to the gaps in representation between oncology professionals and the executive board of their respective organisations.
A recent survey of 700 ESMO members found that, while more than half of the teams were majoritively female, 60% of the team leaders were male.
So, simply increasing the rate of membership does not automatically improve equitability in participating with the organisation, conference or mentorship programmes. That requires structural provisions to widen access for those with other pressures from outside of work. Or as Dr Peters puts it, “facilitating the operations, meaning we have here a childcare, for example. We can also offer flexible fellowships in terms of age – should you have an age limit at 40 when you had three kids or can you grow the age a little bit more and so on. So we have to create around the women’s conditions some operational facilities which will allow women to make a career with a little bit less obstacles. So all these things are ongoing.”
As well as the central award, W4O supports female oncologists on a national basis across Europe where equity of access and controlling positions can vary. Marina Chiara Garassino, Scientific Committee Member of ESMO and Women for Oncology Italy writes “Less than 20 women in Italy are heads of oncology departments and less than 20% participate in oncology congresses as invited speakers. Women for Oncology Italy aims to support women’s career development in Italy by increasing their leadership skills through networking and mentorship programmes”
In Greece, the W4O-Hellas network supports women as professionals in oncology, and also encourages dialogue between those doctors and their female patients. Helena Linardou, representative of the Coordinating Committee of W4O-Hellas writes “This forum of women will promote the interaction and exchange of ideas among women oncologists in Greece and across Europe and will embrace and assist them throughout their career in oncology. The novelty, however, is that at the same time, this forum will offer advice, awareness and support directly from women oncologists to women suffering from cancer and their families in Greece.”
Dr Peters added “I have been seeing satellite symposia with only men; I have been seeing some advisory boards with only men. So still there are other levels where the expertise of women is still maybe not completely appreciated. So on that side, maybe a bit more hidden in the rooms, we have to be careful that women are also at the top level. Because at the end most of the changes come from there and go down.”
“It shouldn’t be difficult to convince because if you find a good group of people that you mentor or support, again your life becomes easier because these people are willing to work, to commit in projects, initiatives. So it should be for everyone a better situation but it takes some time for implementation, that’s the only thing.”