The Exchange

Commentary and Observations from
the Medical Front Lines

Women in Oncology

Women in Oncology

As a nurse practitioner, I practice in a predominantly female profession. However, I have seen a wave of symposia at recent major conferences that focus on women physicians in oncology, and their struggles to compete for leadership roles and advancement against their male counterparts. In the subspecialty of oncology, rapid advances in treatment occur constantly, and these advances are often complexrequiring specific training and education. Women physicians historically have had a tougher time breaking into oncology due to several factors and variables, some of which are in their control, others which are not.

I thought to myself, how does this translate into my life and profession as a nurse practitioner, where I am not necessarily competing with male counterparts as much, but I am a professional trying to advanceor even just stay relevant in my careernonetheless.

I think there are two separate factors to consider concerning women in professional roles. One factor is that if you want to have a family and children, the female is going to require more time away from her job due to the medical aspect of having children. If a woman has two children over a 4 year time frame, she will likely miss 6 months of work in 4 years just from maternity leave. In addition to the maternity leave, the woman will be also taking more time away from work for frequent doctor appointments, as well as time spent for either her own sick days, or her child's sick days. There are also the societal stigmas of women being expected to stay home more with the child than the father, attending more school and extracurricular functions, and performing more of the domestic duties at home.

The second factor that contributes to women in professional roles is our historically less aggressive attitudes than our male counterparts. This includes the idea that women tend to be "people pleasers" and often agree to take on more tasks to help others, rather than choose what may be a good decision for our own career advancement.

Dr. Sandra Horning recently discussed preparing women for opportunities at a Women in Medicine conference. She is a past president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) and was the Head of Global Product Development and Chief Medical Officer of Genentech, Inc. She suggests that women should do these things in order to take smart risks in their careers:

  • Find trusted advisors and colleagues
  • Acquire and hone skills and expertise
  • Focus on the "right" work
  • Stay curious and learn
  • Build networks and partner

As a nurse practitioner, editor, professional speaker, and consultant with a 6-year-old daughter, I am heavily invested in my career and helping cancer patients, as well as educating others through writing and speaking. But I am also heavily invested in my family life. We need to continue the discussion of how women can balance their work and home life, as well as staying shrewd and competitive in our careers to perform and advance in the way that our male counterparts have for many years.

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Filed under: Health Policy and Trends, Oncology/Hematology, Practice Management/Career

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