Gender gap in oncology and in scientific research is “actionable”

Adriana Albini and Alberto Costa

It is well established that women are under-represented in positions of power and leadership, in scientific and health disciplines across the world. There is a lot of concern about it and it seems to be widely recognized, however very little is done, and only few, illuminated institutions are really trying to make a difference.  Cancer World writes in its cover story about “gender gap in oncology”.

Attention to the theme has been devoted by major journals through recent years. The topic of gender and careers is hot and Lancet has published in February 2019 a theme issue on “advancing women in science, medicine, and global health”. This issue is the result of a call for papers that led to overwhelming submissions of more than 300 contributions from over 40 countries, meaning that to achieve a change, actions must be directed at transforming the system.

An Editorial Published in July 2018 by Nature Medicine was entitled: “Actionable equality”, suggesting that equality is doable, while Nature dedicated few years ago, similarly to Lancet now, an entire number to the problems of women in science, and precisely Volume 495 Issue 7439, 7 March 2013 entitled “Science for all”. Nature analysed that many women are deterred from pursuing a career in science at the highest levels. In that pivotal issue, it was stated that “Science remains institutionally sexist”. Despite some progress, women scientists are still paid less, promoted less, win fewer grants and are more likely to leave research than similarly qualified men.

From benches to research

The difficulties encountered by women in oncology, discussed by Cancer World, are shared by both the clinical and experimental sides of the coin, in cancer research. The American Association for Cancer Research, AACR has always dedicated attention to the theme, through various initiatives and the activities of WICR, Women in Cancer Research.

Explanations for the big gender gap are multiple and it is evident that action towards gender equity is mandatory. The United Nations (UN) have drawn the attention of the international community to the serious gender gap that affects science: the advancement of women in science has not only stalled, but has started regressing with a widening of the gender gap in science, and therefore a day has been dedicated as an “International Day of Women and Girls in Science”.

The cover story by Roberta Villa says that relevant reasons cited by respondents to a survey are that men are “perceived” as natural leaders, while a cultural prejudice persists about priority in family and domestic responsibilities by women. However, we are persuaded that disparities are well beyond the different weight of familiar responsibilities, since also unmarried women or married without children, which could fully dedicate to research activities, have encountered tremendous barriers to their advancement.

Sexism in research carrier and carrier tools is very subtle and certain items are difficult to quantify, however very interesting studies have been published in recent years. We know, for example, how authors’ position in papers is important for grants and advancement. A paper in PlosOne about a year ago conducted an analysis named “Gender disparities in high-quality research revealed by Nature Index journals”. The authors found that women are underrepresented in prestigious authorships compared to men (Prestige Index = -0.42) and that only 18.1% of the last authorships are held by women. The data where highly representative being based on a platform where 293,557 research articles from 54 journals were listed from the Nature Index. Also, very indicative of academic sexism, citation analysis reveals that articles with male key authors are more frequently cited than articles with female key authors.

What we can do

The New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF) and a group of women scientists invited to the inaugural meeting of NYSCF’s Initiative on Women in Science and Engineering (IWISE). assembled a selected shortlist of recommendations to promote and ensure gender equality in science, medicine, and engineering, published in Cell Stem Cell (Cell Stem Cell, 2015, 16(3):221-224)

Instead of summarizing, we can draft a more updated list:

  • Pay attention to “male-only” panels in conference sessions. As Roberta writes: and #allmalepanel hashtag on Twitter has been launched
  • Promote women awareness and leadership roles
  • Provide equal mentorship to man and women through their studies and carrier
  • Be aware to give the right role in paper authorship
  • Journals should encourage submission of Editorials by women leaders in their field
  • Equal opportunity in funding should be warranted and presence of a women PI in the teams applying should be encouraged
  • Review Committees should have gender-balance
  • Association boards of directors should have gender-balance
  • Fight for equal salaries: women are less paid for the same job

All these actions are really “actionable”. We intentionally did not list: “Help in child-care” because we think that the measures suggested and others with a similar focus would provide a much better promotion of women than the mere “childcare support” at meetings or at working place.

As the web site of Women and Girls in Science Day states: “interventions, policy tools and focused programs are needed to shift both public and private sectors’ priorities, investments, perceptions on women’s place in Science, Technology and Innovation.  Practical measures that directly respond to barriers that hinder women’s and girls’ success must be instituted.  Best practices and innovative solutions are highly welcomed”.

After all it is a matter of equality, dignity, rights and value recognition.

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