Recognising the role of women in cancer research

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The issue of female representation in STEM occupations has been a hot topic in recent years, writes Katherine Single.

We’ve had the ‘good’, with initiatives such as the WISE Campaign, which aim to increase the number of girls studying STEM subjects; the ‘bad’, with the revelation that female science professors are paid £5,000 less a year than their male counterparts; and the ‘ugly’ with Tim Hunt’s now infamous comments about the ‘trouble with girls’ in the lab.

Women are still generally underrepresented in STEM occupations, making up only 13 per cent of the workforce in the field, so it’s important to promote the current successes of women working in STEM, and to advocate greater gender equality in the sector. That’s why Bioscientifica’s oncology journal, Endocrine-Related Cancer (ERC), is publishing a special issue this November, dedicated to recognising women’s impact in the field of cancer research.

I caught up with the journal’s associate editor, Deborah Marsh, who guest-edited the issue, to find out more about the special publication, and her experience as a woman working in the biosciences.

Why were you interested in editing a special issue on women working in oncology?

As an associate editor of ERC, we frequently receive suggestions for topics that may be suitable for special issues. The suggestion for an issue on women working in cancer research came at a time when there was increasing discussion in the media about women in science. It was also a time when I had just been promoted to Professor within my university, and I was looking to see what activities I could engage in to help promote the careers of others – this was a good opportunity to promote awareness of successful mid-career women cancer researchers.

Were there any common challenges for women working in the field that appeared throughout the articles in the issue?

The women highlighted in this series have diverse backgrounds and sets of experiences. The strongest commonality between all women was the significant role of academic mentors in their professional development.

Tell me about some of the challenges you've had to face as woman in your field:

Challenges have ranged from the minor annoyances, such as being confused as the ‘help’ for the academic procession at graduation, rather than a member of the procession, to establishing myself as an independent researcher.

In your career so far, what has been your most rewarding moment?

Receiving an award for research excellence on stage in front of my peers a couple of weeks after having my daughter – and musing to myself on the diversity of the day I had just lived! Every time I receive notification that one of my PhD students has been recommended for award of their PhD is a hugely rewarding moment.

Do you think that there are fewer challenges than there used to be for women working in the biosciences?

I think perhaps there are actually more challenges now for women working in the biosciences. The research funding environment in many countries has become increasingly competitive; the bar for success has definitely moved higher. For all those who juggle parenting, or other carer responsibilities, with a research career, this can be demanding. While this clearly does not only affect women, many high-achieving women find themselves in this position.

In many countries, there are still far fewer women in senior academic research roles relative to men, despite the fact that, at junior academic levels, these numbers are relatively equivalent. More women are dropping out as they progress along the career ladder. Programs promoting equity in research environments are beginning to address this problem, but there is still work to do.

Conferences in the biosciences are still frequently dominated by a line-up of male speakers. This is also something beginning to be addressed with the active drive to develop programs with both male and female experts on topics of interest.

There is still a relative paucity of senior female role models in the biosciences for younger women. This is part of the reason why it is so important to acknowledge and celebrate the success of women researchers, such as we have done in this special issue.

What advice would you give to young women who aspire to work in the biosciences?

Find your own leadership style and develop confidence with it. Be active in seeking out role models and people, both men and women, who can function as your academic mentors and help you to advance your career. Never lose the fascination and drive that first brought you to a career in biosciences. This will sustain you through the many ups and downs that constitute a research career.

You can read the full ERC special issue “Outstanding Women in Cancer Research” at:

Katherine Single is corporate marketing manager at Bioscientifica.