Disclosures: Blitzer reports no relevant financial disclosures.
November 05, 2020
3 min read

Survey delves into why women choose academic oncology careers

Disclosures: Blitzer reports no relevant financial disclosures.
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Enrollment of women in U.S. medical schools has exceeded that of men, suggesting an encouraging decrease in gender inequity.

However, the increased presence of women in medicine overall has not translated to strong representation of female oncologists in academia.

Quote from Grace C. Blitzer, MD

According to a report by the Association of American Medical Colleges, women comprise only 33.3% of full-time faculty in hematology/oncology. Further, a study by Ahmed and colleagues showed women made up only 27.2% of full-time faculty in radiation oncology in 2015.

Moreover, women remain underrepresented among the leadership of academic oncology.

“When we think about our futures and our careers, we look to our mentors and our attending physicians to help guide our career paths,” Grace C. Blitzer, MD, PGY 4 resident in the department of human oncology at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said in an interview with Healio. “When there are so few women around, it can sometimes be hard to put yourself in just one or two pairs of shoes. So, we thought we would get the wisdom of the masses as far as trying to understand what motivates female oncologists to opt for or against a career in academic medicine so we can strive to make a more equitable job situation for all women.”

Asking the right questions

To better understand the influences — and the barriers — involved in female oncologists’ choice of academic medicine careers, Blitzer and colleagues Aleksandra Kuczmarksa-Haas, MD, and Emily Merfeld, MD, launched a survey called OCEAN (wOmen’s Career choicEs About oNcology). The survey was developed in conjunction with female oncologists and academicians throughout the country and with the help of Blitzer’s mentor Narjust Duma, MD, associate professor of thoracic oncology at University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center and member of the Healio’s Women in Oncology Peer Perspective Board.

“We’ve been lucky to be working with a wonderful group of women to help us form this survey,” Blitzer said. “They have been so helpful in helping us ask the right questions that will accurately capture which factors are important.”

Blitzer said she and her colleagues used various methods, including social media and blog posts, to reach out to female oncologists. She said the online survey includes multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions.

“We’re trying to find out what matters most to these women,” Blitzer said. “We’re asking questions like, ‘Did your partner, if you have one, affect where you looked for a job or what you looked for in a job?’ and, ‘What is most important to you? Is it prestige, or family or money?’ And we ask them to rank these priorities.”

The fill-in-the-blank section at the end of the survey enables respondents to add any influential factors that may have been omitted from the survey.

Domestic responsibilities

Even among the most highly educated and accomplished women, domestic tasks such as child care, cooking and cleaning still are often entrusted to the female head of household. This responsibility, which has been compounded by additional domestic duties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, also is being explored in the OCEAN survey.

“We ask questions about how much time a respondent spends, relative to a partner, on household tasks,” Blitzer said. “We asked what these women outsource, especially now with COVID, but even before then. Are people outsourcing their grocery shopping or their cleaning more? We are trying to figure out how much time a woman is spending on these tasks vs. how much time she’s spending at work.”

A ‘sense of not belonging’

The survey also addresses issues women face in the workforce at large, such as gender bias, overt sexism and sexual harassment. Studies have shown that women in academic medicine report a lower sense of belonging and gender equity than men. They are also more likely to experience sexual harassment.

“We are trying to tease that apart, the sense of not belonging, and what is causing that,” Blitzer said. “We also have a section asking women if they wish they had chosen a different career or if they would consider changing their career.”

Blitzer said she is hopeful the survey will yield new information that will help improve the workplace for female academic oncologists.

“There have been studies looking at how many women are in academia and how often women publish in academics or get promoted,” she said. “But there hasn’t been a study yet looking at why women choose what they choose.”


For more information:

Grace C. Blitzer, MD, can be reached at gblitzer@uwhealth.org.