UW Health Experts Underscore Value of Continuous Mentorship to Champion Women in Oncology


UW Health experts advocate for more women in leadership positions and discuss the need to cultivate diversity to reduce disparities in cancer care.

Janelle N. Sobecki, MD

Janelle N. Sobecki, MD

Mentorship, particularly for youth and individuals from diverse backgrounds, can help foster a more inclusive and representative workforce in oncology, ultimately improving patient outcomes and quality of care, according to experts from the University of Wisconsin (UW) School of Medicine and Public Health.

“We know there's value in having a diverse workforce. [Speaking to] youth, adolescents, and people in that training path [to make them] aware of what a career can look like is incredibly important,” Janelle N. Sobecki, MD, said.

In an interview with OncLive®, Sobecki was joined by Catherine Zhang, MD, MPH; Monica Patel, MD; and Loyda Braithwaite, NP, and the group discussed the importance of advocating for more women in leadership positions within oncology and underscored the value of continuous mentorship during education and beyond.

At the UW School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison, Zhang is an assistant professor of gynecologic oncology in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology; Patel is an assistant professor of hematology, medical oncology, and palliative care in the Department of Hematology/Oncology; and Sobecki is an assistant professor (CHS) of gynecologic oncology in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Braithwaite is an oncology nurse practitioner at the UW Health.

OncLive: How do you envision the future of women's representation and leadership in oncology research, clinical practice, and health care management?

Zhang: In general, I would love to see an increase in women in leadership positions, whether that be in research, clinical practice, or policy [making]. Currently, women in oncology comprise approximately one-third of the workforce; however, we account for only one-fifth of full-time professors and one-third of department leaders. This is particularly true in subspecialties, such as urologic oncology and surgical oncology.

We have a lot of room to grow in having more female leaders. Studies have shown that programs with 1 or more women in leadership positions are associated with a higher average percentage of women on faculty.

Braithwaite: I envision the representation of women in leadership in oncology to continue to grow, particularly in the field of advanced practice nursing. Historically, nursing in all its forms—bedside, advanced practice, etc.—has been a profession led mostly by females; however, that comes with its ups and downs, as well. Historically, women have not been represented at the table where decisions are made.

We are in a good position to continue [improving the representation] of women. In all the specialties and areas in health care, we are now taking—especially in oncology—a multidisciplinary approach. It's an era where we're able to integrate clinical practice and research in the medical field [together]. We're also producing knowledge that is impacting patient care and health outcomes for our patients.

In the workforce and academia, we continue to integrate [more women]. I envision that we will continue to have female leaders in all areas and have close collaboration in all fields when it comes to oncology care.

Patel: A big reason why I came to UW is the fact that we do have many women leaders in our academic positions. It's major kudos to UW, and it's a reason I'm proud to be here. There is still a lot to do, but it is incredible to see this many women in leadership positions.

What steps are necessary to cultivate a more diverse and inclusive environment for women in cancer care?

Braithwaite: Female providers, researchers, and clinicians bring a different perspective when it comes to health care, and research has shown over and over that patient satisfaction with female providers tends to be different when it comes to the care that they receive. What we can do to continue to cultivate this diverse and inclusive environment is to continue to empower our younger generations of female leaders.

As females in the field of oncology, [we need to] continue to support each other and empower growth in all areas. This is going to guarantee that we continue to support and maintain the diversity that we need. I identify with an ethnic minority population as well; you must prove yourself as a female in the field, and on top of that, you must prove yourself as someone who has English as a second language.

Supporting and creating those avenues for [other women] to continue to grow is necessary. It's vital for women to continue thriving within oncology, [including] advanced practice nurses, colleagues, physicians, and researchers; we are a pillar in every step that we take when it comes to cancer care.

Sobecki: Mentorship is key. I benefited from a lot of influential female mentorship, certainly at this level, but [also early in my career]. For those of us who have gotten to where we are, that mentorship [is important]. A lot of communities have programs, even at the high school level, intended to support women in science and women in medicine, letting youths and adolescents know that these positions in science don't need to look a certain way. We can support people from all walks of life in their decision to pursue science [by providing] mentorship throughout undergraduate and medical school.

As students rotate through with us, [we must] give back that mentorship and ensure that women and people from more diverse backgrounds understand that these fields benefit [by including] people from every walk of life. Certain specialties don't have to look a certain way. If someone is interested in and passionate about [a certain area], we know patients are going to be served well by a diverse background of individuals.

Patel: Another piece to reduce disparities in cancer care for our female patients is to enroll patients in clinical trials. Clinical trials are a key part of our oncologic care, but we know [female patients] are less likely to enroll in studies.

Clinical trials are incredibly important to not only further our cancer treatment, but to make sure that our clinical trial results are generalizable to [the real-world] patient population, including women. If we're not including them [in trials], how can [these studies] represent the patient population at large? We need to make sure that we're including women in studies, and it's important, as female providers, to continue to think about that and make sure we're included in the field.

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