Women 4 Oncology: Advancing the careers of female oncologists

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Published: 22 Oct 2018
Views: 1845
Dr Solange Peters - Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois, Lausanne, Switzerland

Dr Solange Peters speaks with ecancer at ESMO 2018 in Munich about the Women 4 Oncology initiative encouraging and uplifting women in research, management and industry of cancer care.

She discusses how ESMO has worked to improve the representation of women on speaker panels, provide child care options and push back restrictions on age that block the career progression of women, and calls on ESMO members to promote, mentor and encourage the work of their colleagues.

Women 4 Oncology is indeed an initiative which was started years ago within ESMO with a slow growth initially. It was Martine Piccart who launched it, it’s very important to say, but it was difficult to really grab all the attention which was deserved in the very beginning. It’s now probably three years that we have a committee very active in trying to, first of all, create awareness about the existence, the real existence, of a gender gap in our medical oncology profession. By gender gap I mean the presence of women in the hierarchy of our presidents, boards of directors, but also simply as speakers in the rooms and during the sessions, advisors when you go to advisory boards, in satellites when the pharma company design, this gap is very visible and measurable.

So, first of all, we have been describing it, convincing the committee that it exists, it was important, and we are now doing the surveillance. We are screening for these numbers and updating these numbers every year in order to be sure that we can describe the potential evolution being positive or negative. In ESMO this number has gone way better, also because we advertise a lot, but at this meeting almost 40% of the speakers are women. We were at 20-something some years ago so it’s good but we have to continue. The negative points, and where we are stuck at the time being, if you look at the international level, international congresses, international boards, if you look at national levels, since three years it hasn’t changed at all. 30% or 25-30% of the speakers are women and board members being women are extremely rare. So we have to move with that.

So, first of all, us creating awareness and the other two points are probably to find solutions. What are the solutions? 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 second thing is facilitating the operations, I would say, 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.

And where would you like to see it in, say, five years’ time?

I think you should never really imagine that parity must define a population but a more balanced environment. So what I would say is I wouldn’t say 50%, it would be ideal, but it should fluctuate between 40-60% on both sides. So I hope that where we stand for this meeting, for example, for ESMO in terms of speakers it should stay the same. Still 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.

There must also be the initiative you mentioned with mentoring to support women from the beginning.

Yes. So the mentoring is very important. The format is difficult because trying to find a mentor or sponsor we prefer to speak about sponsor. 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, networking events with potentially an IT platform too, where you could make people connect. We have to convince the community all around that they have to become mentors or sponsors at least for one, two, three people which is not the case nowadays.
Hopefully it shouldn’t take much convincing for everyone to agree that equality should be for everyone at any level.
Absolutely. 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. But, again, we really started to work on it maybe two or three years ago so we are moving quite well in that.