By Crystal Seldon, MD; Awad Ahmed, MD; Anna M. Laucis, MD, MPhil; and Cristiane Takita, MD, MBA
Gender inequality is an ongoing problem among United States (U.S.) medical professionals.1-2 While there have been gains in diversifying the field of medicine, such as the number of women surpassing the number of men matriculating into U.S. medical schools,3 women continue to remain in the minority among faculty of academic institutions.4 Academic oncology is no exception.5 Women make up the minority of all faculty in the fields of medical oncology, radiation oncology (RO) and surgical oncology at U.S. academic institutions.6 This extends to leadership positions, specifically program director and department chair positions. In RO alone, women constitute 30.7% of the academic workforce and only 17.4% of the leadership roles.6 Women also make up the minority of positions on governing boards, such as the Board of Directors, as well as leadership positions for the national professional societies of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) and the American Society for Radiation Oncology.7 There is some progress in this arena, as the current ASCO President is Lori J. Pierce, MD, FASCO, FASTRO, a female radiation oncologist and vice provost at the University of Michigan. And ASTRO currently has three women in Board leadership roles: ASTRO President Laura Dawson, MD, FASTRO, President-elect Geraldine Jacobson, MD, MPH, MBA, FASTRO, and Secretary/Treasurer Neha Vapiwala, MD.
Over the years, we have seen more women enter the field of medicine in the U.S., now representing a narrow majority of matriculating medical students, 50.5% as of 2019.8 However, as more women join the field of medicine, the number of female RO residents appears to have plateaued at 30.2% as of 2019.9 This plateau is also seen in leadership roles in RO residency programs. In 2012, the percentage of female program directors and department chairs was 24% and 9% respectively10 as compared to 23.8% and 11.7% in 2020.6 Studies have shown that female trainees are more likely to practice in programs with women in leadership positions.11-13 The lack of gender equity in leadership positions also likely contributes to the low number of female trainees who matriculate into the field each year, creating a self-perpetuating cycle with a limited supply in the workforce to become leaders.
To address the lack of gender equity in radiation oncology, barriers to equality must be addressed. These barriers include but are not limited to gender specific expectations, barriers to mentorship, disparities in research funding and biases in tenure and academic tracks.14 The lack of predefined finite time limits to leadership positions in academic radiation oncology may contribute to the lack of inclusion in the U.S. academic RO community. Policies introducing term limits for leadership positions in academic medicine have been proposed as a potential solution.15 Work by Odie et al. has showed that gender disparities among chairs exist and are widespread, even in fields where women make up the majority of the workforce, such as obstetrics and gynecology.16 This suggests that the pipeline may not be the heart of the matter. The current disparities seen in leadership, both gender and racial, represent a relic of the past and are unlikely to change without motivational policy; social and institutional guidelines will likely be needed to create gender parity in these leadership roles.
Within recent years, movements geared toward promoting gender equity, such as the #MeTooSTEM, #WomeninMedicine and #HeforShe online platforms, have identified the need for addressing this issue, especially in academia. With more women entering into the field of medicine, it is important to close the gap between men and women faculty members, especially those in leadership positions. Observing other women in leadership roles can inspire and motivate a bright message to students and the public that the field of RO is not only diverse but inclusive as well. An honest assessment of these barriers will be integral as the specialty seeks to attract future radiation oncologists and create a diverse workforce, such that the ideas and opinions representing those from diverse gender, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds can be better represented to ultimately help guide and inform the very best oncologic care for our patients.
Join us in the Gender Equity Community on the ROhub to continue the discussion. What are your suggestions to improve gender equity in radiation oncology?
Crystal Seldon, MD, is a PGY-3 radiation oncology resident at the University of Miami/Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Awad Ahmed, MD, is a radiation oncologist practicing at Multicare Tacoma Washington and ASTRO CHEDI member.
Anna M. Laucis, MD, MPhil, is a chief resident physician in radiation oncology at the University of Michigan and an ASTRO CHEDI member.
Cristiane Takita, MD, MBA, is a professor and residency program director at the University of Miami/Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and ASTRO CHEDI member.
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