Disclosures: Keenan reports no relevant financial disclosures.
March 11, 2021
2 min read

COVID-19 further threatens equality for women in academic oncology

Disclosures: Keenan reports no relevant financial disclosures.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the careers of both men and women in the field of oncology, but women especially have been confronted with increased responsibilities at work and home.

“What I realized during COVID was that women were often being pulled out of the workforce to attend to what we call ‘extraprofessional caregiving,’” Bridget Keenan, MD, PhD, hematology/oncology fellow and postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, told Healio. “This could be caring for children who are now being schooled at home or caring for elders. At the same time, we’re seeing a lot of added stress in the workplace due to the pandemic. It’s created a perfect storm of stressful conditions.”

Quote from Bridget Keenan, MD, PhD

A paper written by Keenan and colleagues and published in JAMA Oncology outlined the effects of the pandemic on scholarly activity, career advancement and grant applications, and proposed ways to counteract these effects.

“We’re trying to emphasize that things are not equal yet for women in oncology and, during the pandemic, that inequity may become worse,” Keenan said. “We outlined several solutions that can be made at an institutional level to mitigate the pandemic’s effects on women in the oncology workforce. We’re talking about systemic problems, and they require big-picture solutions.”

Keenan, along with Reshma Jagsi, MD, DPhil, Newman family professor and deputy chair of the department of radiation oncology, director of the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine at University of Michigan and Women in Oncology Peer Perspective Board member, and Katherine Van Loon, MD, MPH, associate professor of clinical medicine at University of California, San Francisco, and medical director of the GI Oncology Survivorship Program at Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, identified six ways in which academic oncology can address its ever-widening gender gap:

  • rapidly implement flexible remote work schedules;
  • take an equity-based approach to increased demands for productivity, implementing ideas such as access to medical scribes and time-banking to recognize the many unpaid service tasks that often are disproportionately handled by women;
  • establish transparent institutional systems that provide support and avoiding layoffs that could lead to increased physician time spent on administrative tasks and retraining;
  • encourage federal and private agencies to extend research funding periods to account for time missed due to the pandemic, and use equity-focused solutions to narrow funding gaps;
  • develop equity-based metrics and policies with which to consider lost academic productivity due to pandemic-related disruptions in the workplace or at home; and
  • support oncologists who have taken on responsibility for unpaid labor at home by providing services such as food delivery, errand assistance, child care solutions and tutoring for children impacted by school closings.

Keenan emphasized that female oncologists are not alone in facing additional challenges during the pandemic.

“People with intersecting identities — such as women from groups that are underrepresented in medicine — may also have other competing challenges,” she said. “If we can have a diverse group at the table, we can work to overcome disparities not only related to gender, but also to other aspects of identity such as race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.”

Keenan noted that academic institutions must take swift action to support women in oncology.

“Even though, hopefully, the pandemic has an end in sight, these challenges could persist for years to come,” she said. “That’s why our article ends with a call to action to prevent further loss of progress.”


For more information:

Bridget Keenan, MD, PhD, can be reached at bridget.keenan@ucsf.edu.