By Yun Rose Li, MD, PhD, Parul Barry, MD, and Adrianna Masters, MD, PhD
While many women scientists and physicians made critical contributions that paved the path to modern day advances in radiation oncology, few were recognized for their work. Perhaps one of the most well-known pioneers in the field of radiation oncology is a woman: Marie Curie, recipient of two Nobel Prizes for her extensive work on radioactivity and the discovery of radium.
But aside from Marie Curie, most of her contemporaries received little acknowledgment. For example, Lise Meitner, an Austrian-Swedish physicist, helped discover the element protactinium-231 and described the process of nuclear fission (Sime, 1996). Her work demonstrating that uranium atoms split when bombarded with neutrons allowed for the later development of nuclear energy and nuclear bombs. For her contributions, she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in chemistry and physics 48 times, though she never received the award.
Another example is Margaret Cleaves, who in the early 1900s was one of an estimated 20 physicians (the only female) to have access to radium for clinical purposes and ultimately became the first to use radium in gynecology to treat cervical cancer (Aronowitz, Aronowitz, & Robison, 2007). She was heavily criticized and was largely dismissed by other physician colleagues. At that time, not only were educational opportunities and access to postgraduate training for women extremely limited, but society placed strict limitations on the role of women as physicians and leaders in medicine.
It was not until the demands created by WWI and WWII that broader access to medical/graduate education and career opportunities, aside from those that were traditionally seen as “feminine” roles, were made available to women. Often considered to be a founder of nuclear medicine, Edith Quimby studied the medical effects of radiation and dose limiting side effects with the application of radioactive isotopes in the treatment of thyroid disease, brain tumors and other cancers during her time at Memorial Hospital for Cancer and Allied Disease in New York (Linton, 2012). In 1954, she became the first female president of the American Radium Society and was the recipient of the Janeway Medal of the American Radium Society, the Gold Medal of the Radiological Society of North America and the Gold Medal from the American College of Radiology.
Other important women who made contributions to radiation oncology include Chien-Shiung Wu, also known as the First Lady of Physics. Wu, a Chinese American particle and experimental physicist, worked on the Manhattan Project and played an important role in the advancement of nuclear and particle physics. Despite their successes, very few women obtained faculty positions and even fewer chaired departments during the mid-1900s. One example was Ruth Guttman, who became the director of the Department of Radiotherapy at Columbia University from 1955 to 1976. Other notable examples include Florence Chu, who was the chair of Radiotherapy at Memorial hospital 1976-1984, and Anna Hamann, who at the end of a long career, became the director of radiation therapy at Evanston Hospital, although she never attained a full professorship. These women and many other women physicians and scientists overcame tremendous challenges and faced persecution and hostility in order to pursue their dreams to advance the field of radiation oncology and radiation physics.
Though many would like to believe that efforts made to address challenges faced by women in science and medicine have allowed women to break the glass ceiling in radiation oncology, there is still a lot left to do. In fact, the lack of gender diversity among radiation oncologists begins with medical school applicants and continues to widen throughout career development. Currently, women represent at least half of all medical school students but make up only 30% of applicants to radiation oncology training programs. The gender disparity widens as women progress in their careers, with leadership positions and chair positions further widening the gap: academic positions 17.4% and female chairs 11.7% (Gharzai and Jagsi 2020).
Leadership roles on editorial boards of oncology journals are another area of noticeable disparities in representation of underrepresented minorities and women. A recent abstract presented by Patel et al. reviewed 54 oncology journals and 793 board members, and there was not a single editor-in-chief position held by a minority female. At a time when COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the career development of women, who often serve as primary caretakers at home, how do we create an even ground for achieving career success? This is a pivotal time to reevaluate our measures of productivity and the metrics we use to decide on tenure or promotion. Recognizing that women in STEM in general have shown much larger interruptions in submissions to journals during this time than their male counterparts, even those with young children, the charge is with institutions and national organizations within our field to make a change to do better for women in radiation oncology.
We would argue that we need to promote diversity of not just representation and service on committees, but chairing committees, successfully applying for FASTRO status and even the Gold medalists. We reviewed the listed ASTRO Gold medalists on the website and found that since 1977 only 12% of honorees were female. The majority of the current ASTRO executive committee is female. In reviewing the chair and vice-chair positions of the councils, two of five council vice-chairs are women. Because portions of the application process for FASTRO focus on recommendations of existing recipients, leadership roles and other metrics of academic success, is this placing an undue burden on persons from underrepresented groups? We are curious to know what the success rates are for applications and if there is a way to blind applications to reduce bias.
It is important to recognize that, even though much remains to be done to level the playing ground for women in radiation oncology, our field has seen enormous contributions made by women, and more and more women are being recognized for their work. The 2021 ASTRO Gold medalists were notably both women (Colleen Lawton, MD, FASTRO, and Lori Pierce, MD, FASTRO). Moreover, Sue Yom, MD, PhD, FASTRO, who has made tremendous contributions to major societies in our field including ASTRO and American Radium Society where she is the immediate past chair, is the incoming editor-in-chief of the Red Journal.
What are some of our thoughts on increasing representation of diverse groups of people in leadership?
- Recognize the accomplishments of others and go out of your way to highlight those who may not be in a position to do it for themselves.
- Do not assume that someone doesn’t want to serve in a leadership role, is too busy or wouldn’t want to take time away from a specific activity (raising young children, for example). Why not simply ask?
- Offer support in a positive way that sponsors the success of others and specifically think about multiple candidates for a task or role in leadership.
- Be thoughtful with your word choices and their impact on those around you.
- Acknowledge the additional burden of unpaid domestic work, specifically during global pandemics, and think about ways to provide resources: Adapt to a changing environment to allow diversity of experience to enrich our culture as radiation oncologists!
- Be aware of biases, speak up when you recognize them and acknowledge when you recognize your own. Positive change cannot happen unless we do.
Join us on the ROhub to share your thoughts and discuss: What other ways can we support diversity of leadership and diversity of thought?
And be sure to acknowledge Marie Curie on Sunday, November 7 with #WeWhoCurie day!
Aronowitz JN, Aronowitz SV, Robison RF. Classics in brachytherapy; 2007.
Gharzai LA, Jagsi R. Ongoing Gender Inequity in Leadership Positions of Academic Oncology Programs: The Broken Pipeline. JAMA Network Open 3 (3): e200691–e200691. 2020. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.0691
Linton O. Edith H. Quimby. Journal of the American College of Radiology, 9(6), 449. 2012. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacr.2011.11.020
Sime RL. Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics. University of California Press. 1996.