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On the fifth and final day of the ACCC 37th [Virtual] National Oncology Conference, speakers and attendees addressed the disproportionate representation of women in oncology. In their opening remarks to the keynote address, Nadine J. Barrett, PhD, MA, MS, ACCC Board of Trustees Member, and Krista Nelson, MSW, LCSW, OSW-C, BCD, ACCC President-Elect, discussed the potential irony of having a man present the conference’s closing keynote address on the need for more women in oncology. Noting that some of her colleagues questioned this choice, Dr. Barrett said that people in positions of power—regardless of gender—can play important roles in encouraging diversity in the workplace.
“If more men took on this task,” added Dr. Barrett, “we would be in a very different place right now.” Nelson agreed. “This is so similar to what we are seeing across the country with Black Lives Matter,” she said. “We can’t just leave it to people of color to raise awareness. We need the people who are in leadership positions today to advocate for social justice issues. We don’t want people to be afraid of having these discussions. Once we start excluding people from participating, we start creating an exclusionary space that prevents significant change.”
For both women, and for Dr. Barrett as a woman of color, blatant sexism and calculated microaggressions have played roles in attempting to keep them from reaching their full potential. Both women said they recognize the importance of the mentors they have had in helping raise them up and giving them access to leadership positions not typically held by women. “Look around at the decision-making teams in your organization,” said Dr. Barrett, “and ask yourself who is and who is not there. The entire team needs to understand the value of diversity and inclusion to the entire organization.”
“This is about creating opportunities for people to walk into spaces they have not typically occupied,” affirmed Nelson, adding that the keynote speaker will describe just such an opportunity in a new program for high school students who identify as female and are interested in future careers in cancer biology, research, or care.
The day’s closing keynote speaker, Nick Smith-Stanley, MBA, Associate Director of Finance and Administration at the Livestrong Cancer Institutes at Dell Medical School, described a unique summer program that educates and mentors young women from disadvantaged backgrounds who are interested in a career in oncology.
Smith-Stanley noted that the number of women in medical school has surpassed the number of men for the first time in history. While we should doubtless recognize how far women have come in being able to seek a medical education, noted Smith-Stanley, women continue to be significantly underrepresented in the upper levels of medical practice and academia, particularly women of color. Only 35 percent of practicing physicians are women, and this number is even lower for hematology and oncology specialists. Adding further complexity, approximately 50 percent of women researchers who give birth do not return to work or return part-time.
“The lack of women in positions of leadership is staggering,” said Smith-Stanley. “Women are not given the tools, mentorship, or support for growth. Organizations have a responsibility to promote women and people of color, and it starts with the culture of a workplace. People bring their own ideas and biases and preferences into their organizations, which makes it crucial for leadership to embrace and promote diversity.”
Smith-Stanley said this means organizations should go out and seek promising women leaders and recruit and mentor them to make a difference. “Everyone needs mentorship to succeed,” said Smith-Stanley. “Women, particularly women of color, have traditionally not had access to mentorship opportunities.”
To address this need, the Livestrong Cancer Institutes at Dell Medical School piloted last year the Summer Healthcare Experience (SHE)—the first program of its kind to specifically address the disparity of women in oncology.
The program invites juniors and seniors attending Title 1 high schools who identify as female to participate in a week-long immersion program that introduces them to cancer biology, research, and care. The program’s curriculum features a combination of teaching methodologies that include didactic lectures and interactive and hands-on demonstrations that put SHE participants in the company of medical students, researchers, and physicians. As participants in the SHE program, students visit research labs, attend a multidisciplinary tumor board, participate in a survivorship group, meet community outreach workers, and talk to female leaders in oncology.
The goals of the program, said Smith-Stanley, are for participants to gain a general knowledge of cancer and cancer biology, understand how cancer is treated in the community, identify the challenges that patients/families face when diagnosed with cancer, and learn communication and leadership skills.
“We want students to leave the SHE program with an understanding of cancer and how it is treated,” said Smith-Stanley. “This first group was very engaged, and they were anxious to learn how they can pursue a career in oncology.”
Smith-Stanley said Livestrong Cancer Institutes are developing partnerships that will replicate the SHE program throughout the country at additional cancer centers. He hopes SHE will provide essential mentorship to future leaders in cancer care.
“The lack of women department chairs and deans results in a lack of mentorship and leadership opportunities for female students,” said Smith-Stanley. “SHE strives to provide these opportunities to young women who would not otherwise have them.”
Smith-Stanley said that Livestrong has also benefited from the program. “Developing the program has brought my team closer together,” he affirmed. “We feel empowered by these students to further chip away at the gender disparities that exist in cancer care.”
The ACCC 37th [Virtual] National Oncology Conference was held live September 14-18. If you missed this exciting educational event, you can register and hear all sessions online through October 16.