In this episode we continue our exploration of gender diversity in cancer research with Johanna Joyce, Marisol Soengas, and Mireia Crispin Ortuzar. Drawing from the challenges discussed in the previous episode, they discuss practical measures to break the glass ceiling for women in cancer research.

They share insights into the importance of supportive networks, mentorship, and the involvement of both men and women in addressing gender disparities. Join us on this journey through statistics, personal experiences, and practical solutions, as we remain dedicated to breaking barriers and promoting equity in cancer research.

Listen here, scroll down for the transcript and subscribe now via Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music/Audible, Deezer or YouTube so you’ll never miss an episode. You can find all episodes and their transcripts here.

Our guests in this episode:
  • Johanna Joyce, Professor at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland.
  • Marisol Soengas, Group Leader at the Spanish National Cancer Research Center, Spain.
  • Mireia Crispin Ortuzar, Assistant Professor at the University of Cambridge, UK.

And our host: Alexandra Boitor, EACR Scientific Officer.

Episode transcript

Alexandra: I’m so grateful to be able to continue this wonderful conversation about women in cancer research with our guests, Marisol, Johanna and Mireia. I would like to pick up the conversation from where we left off in episode 9. Marisol, in the last episode, when we were discussing about the glass ceiling, and that perhaps women have less opportunities to be embraced in top leadership positions, such as directors of institutes, for instance, you said that something has to be done or can be done to promote the career progression of women in science. Did you have something in particular in mind?

Marisol: I think it’s quite important that many grant funding agencies now are requesting women in science offices, or some kind of policies, in place at the institutes. And I think, of course, some of these offices are created just to fill a form, right? But some are taking care of and reflecting on, for example, active policies for hiring. I think it’s clear that because women tend to be, I’m not going to say insecure, but they need to feel that they are super qualified to put themselves forward. So these active policies to make sure that women are called or that you have enough CVs to evaluate when looking for job openings, that we have enough women put forward at conferences, not just to give a talk, but as Chairs, right?

So I always talk about this concept that you have mentorship, and it’s very important, mentoring men and mentoring women. But I think we need to go to the concept of sponsorship. Sponsorship is an active action to find women and to promote women. Of course, and then the CVs will be there and the best people should be hired.

I think there are still things that we can do in the level of the institution and also at the level of scientific policy. I think this is what we have to request, that centres that don’t have women in science or some kind of diversity policies in place, they should have that.
And that, hopefully, slowly will help.

Johanna: Yeah, maybe that’s something in the UK. The Athena Swan Charter is now being adopted around the world. What’s your feeling about how effective that has been in terms of this exact point, right? That then funding is tied to where institutes sit with regards to their gender diversity. And I think that’s a really active measure. Rather than saying, yes, yes, we need to have more women. If it’s tied to funding, then people will respond.

Mireia: I completely agree with the idea, and I’ve seen this done also in conferences, for example, when you have a conference call, you have to send in an application in a lot of places now require that you also have a specific named person who’s going to ensure that there’s a whole diversity strategy laid out and then you have to describe it, etc., and the funding is conditional on that.

With regards to Athena Swan Charter or other similar programs, I think the issue has been sometimes that although they’re great as a starting point, there’s a challenge there in that they are plans, they are not achievements. So you can get an Athena Swan award or level for something that you’ve said you’re going to do, and then in the future, you might lose it if you haven’t actually done it, but you enjoy it for a number of years without actually having necessarily achieved what you said you were going to do.

So I think it’s a great starting point and it’s a scheme that has achieved a lot. I think it’s really important that we require well-defined achievements and we should think about what those metrics should be. But we need to be able to first demonstrate progress. You need to make sure that you’re moving forward. And secondly, that you’re achieving certain goals. It can’t be just plans, I think, because it’s very easy to come up with ideas, but if you don’t have any way of measuring it, and I like what you said earlier, Johanna, about us being scientists – if you can’t demonstrate the impact of what you’ve done, and luckily in this area of our work, impact is actually really visible. It’s not like in some other areas of research where we’re striving to show really what impact means. In this, it should be relatively straightforward to show the impact in terms of how the female members of staff have been positively impacted by these policies. I think it should be a requirement to ask for those as well.

Johanna: Absolutely. I would definitely agree with that. I think that metrics are so important because again, back to what we were saying before, there’s so much “blah, blah” about these kinds of initiatives. And then if there are no metrics to back up or to find out whether any particular intervention had an impact or not. Either way, it’s important to get that data. Something that we we do here at the University of Lausanne is that you can go onto our website and you can find all of the statistics, all of the information for the gender proportions, for example, at each different stage. And then you can see with the interventions that we are putting into place or have put into place, if they’ve had a tangible impact.

So I think more institutes need to, or maybe have to be forced to be public with those statistics, because then we’ll actually know if things are changing in a meaningful way or not. And again, it’s very straightforward to tie that to grant funding. If you’re below a certain proportion, in terms of any diversity metric, that should have a tangible impact on the core funding for that university, for that institute, not to the individuals, that’s not fair, but the core funding.

Marisol: Yeah, so I think this is happening now, because there is this European seal for human resources that includes diversity, different aspects of mentoring, different aspects of career development etc. So this is at our institute in Spain and at the European level. And I think that these institutes that have this seal, at least from a funding perspective, will be favoured. When metrics are associated with some kind of grant funding, this is probably the best, or one of the fastest ways to go. I think there are many agencies becoming very aware of this, and also in the US as well.

Alexandra: So just to highlight one of the latest SHE figures, which I’ve referenced earlier as well, this shows that women are less successful than men in accessing research funding, more exactly 3.9% less successful. So I think that’s the main reason why it’s important to tie these into funding applications as well. Is this what you were trying to say?

Johanna: I’m not sure about those figures because I think it perhaps depends on the country and depends on the funding scheme. So just to maybe start with an example of Switzerland. So the Swiss National Science Foundation really loves to run these surveys and collect a lot of data to see if these types of concerns are valid or not. They actually just published one, and it was for the stage of applying for your first independent grant as a PI. And there was no difference in the success rate between men and women. And they also did a study maybe a year before that, looking at the Swiss equivalent of the ERC Advanced Grant, and there they found that the funding rank was also equivalent, and if anything, it was perhaps higher, the success rate, for women versus men. The recent ERC calls, the numbers from those, again, have shown across all stages, starting Consolidate to Advanced, at least in recent years, the success rates and the levels of prevalence for women and men are equivalent and again, in some cases, maybe higher for women.

So I think it really depends on the funding agency in question, as to whether that’s the case. And of course these numbers will fluctuate from year to year. But I would see this more positively. I think that the success rates are similar, but there are less women overall applying to those calls, and that’s another challenge. And maybe that’s something that we could now think about ways to overcome.

Marisol: Yes, I agree with that. So in terms of success of these high impact grants, and you mentioned the ERC, you mentioned your analysis at the Swiss level. Also here in Spain, we have the Spanish Association for Cancer Research. We have also looked into this, and definitely for these individual grants, the rate of success is the same, but there are less women applying. Where there is a difference is in collaborative grants, and they’re just large grants. And it’s very typical that the leaders of the main PI of these large quality grants are men. And then women get called to participate, and actually sometimes get called because you need to fill up a quota, which is pretty upsetting.

But anyway, the thing is, so why then do we have to reflect on not only that we don’t apply to individual grants, but these high collaborative and competitive grants, there is what we need to actually make a difference. And we can talk about examples where this has helped. And I remember one is the Melanoma Research Alliance. I work in melanoma, and there is a large funding agency. And they realised that typically the grants were these big grants, not the collaborative PIs by some men, principal investigators. And then they had a call, and it was Women in Science Team Awards, they called it that. One year they had 20% of women applying, the next year 60%. So women are there. We are few, but we are there. We have people highly accomplished, but somehow you just call somebody to be in somebody’s grant as opposed to run your own large one. So that is somewhere that we need to help. How do you help this actively?

So first thing is promoting and calling other women, and then I think it’s true that these grants are sometimes very criticised grants for women. They’re not grants for women, they’re grants that you have to demonstrate that you are competitive. And once you’re competitive, you have a slot reserved for these women-led teams, and this has helped. And the following year, there were more women applying.

Johanna: Yeah, I think that’s a great idea. Maybe one other thing to consider is we know this for these large grants that you mentioned, Marisol, but we also know it, for example, for prizes, right? Women are just not being nominated at the level that men are. So perhaps to consider then is in such a large consortium like this, right? You have two co-leaders and you have to have a woman and a man, and then that way you will, by definition, ensure that there is gender equality. This is something to consider. Marisol, you’re looking a bit sceptical!

Marisol: No I’m not. There is always the backlash of this, particularly from our male colleagues, that they feel, “oh, grants for women, and now you are lucky”. And I always said this, these calls need to consider that you have to get to a certain level. The quality, the impact has to be there. But then at that level, so to also then reserve a number of grants for women. And having co-leaders, yeah, that’s one option as well. But I think it’s very typical that men criticise this, and that’s what we have to fight.

Mireia: So if I can add to this, with regards to the statistic that we started the discussion with, I would also say that I don’t think we see it in the UK either for the funding schemes that are UK-specific. Thinking of Cancer Research UK, for example, they published their diversity report recently and it showed that there was no statistical difference between the success rates for women and men. If you look at individual awards in some of them, it’s a bit high and some of them is a bit lower, but basically there isn’t anything like a trend in the results.

So CRUK funds a lot of the research that happens in cancer in the UK. And then with regards to having a man and a woman, I tend to like that type of scheme. I completely agree with Marisol that it might backfire potentially, so all of these strategies need to be carefully thought out, but actually we have a similar thing in our cancer centre here in Cambridge which applies to a completely different type of challenge, which is a challenge of clinical versus non-clinical researchers. Our cancer centre has a series of programs and institutes, and every program has to have a clinical lead and a non-clinical lead. And that has helped hugely because we also have this issue sometimes, with these two communities that a lot of time the clinical voice can be very strong and the non-clinical, computational researchers are seen as maybe not as important in some of these discussions. And so having two always as co-leaders has been hugely beneficial with this challenge and I can see something like that working applied to this as well.

The other thing I would say is we were talking about women not applying enough, and I think we know that this is an issue beyond science, beyond cancer, beyond STEM – this is an issue for women globally. And there’s a quote I like that says something like, “women are promoted for their achievements, and men are promoted for their potential”. And I think that’s true for a lot of the things that we’re discussing here as well. You can tell, as a man, and I really don’t want to generalise, but some men can tell very good stories, can tell themselves really well, and they will get the award for it. It’s that skill that perhaps hasn’t been developed well enough in many women. And so if we’re discussing strategies, I think in ensuring that women are able to overcome that imposter syndrome that I think most of us have. And it’s about how do you get over that and still be there and present yourself and tell that story and just go for it. And that requires training, it requires someone who’s telling you how to get there, and maybe in some communities that happens more naturally because traditionally there’s been that way of doing things and people will support each other in that way and it just happens. And maybe in other groups, it’s something that needs to be done actively. And I think that training programs around that would be really effective.

Johanna: Coming back to something Marisol mentioned earlier, the sponsorship idea, that this can apply to women, or it can apply, in your case, Mireia, you are in the sector of being a physicist, now a computational cancer researcher, right? There are people who can both benefit from and contribute to helping people along. And I think that help doesn’t even necessarily need to be formalised. It’s about finding people that want to help you, right? And I think many, many people really love to help, particularly younger people coming up, looking for advice.

And again, this doesn’t have to only apply to women, it’s for men too. I think all of us mentor at least as many men, young researchers, as women. But this is really important, and that’s kind of an aspect that maybe is overlooked or maybe young people feel, “how am I going to go and ask this person to be my mentor?” Well, you don’t have to like say it like that. You can find a way to have basically a mentoring team, right? Different people that will help you for different things or sounding boards that you can go to for advice. I really see the importance, particularly for young women in cancer research, of being part of that type of a network, because if you’re known to those of us who are organising conferences or forming a research network, that’s going to tremendously help you, particularly in the early stages, as you’re working to establish yourself as a new PI or are thinking about whether that’s something that you want to do or not.

So, I think that mentoring networks are another area where we can really have a huge impact. And that impact, what I like about it, is that it continuously feeds forward, right? All those people who are part of that mentoring network, they then mentor younger versions of themselves. Not to tell them what to do, we don’t want to do that, but we want to be basically a sounding board, to listen to people, to help them, advocate for them, sponsor them, mentor them in different ways. And I think that people who can tap into that can do very well.

Marisol: I agree very much. We talk about two things. One is sponsorship when you are in a position to really help others. And then the mentoring. The Spanish Association for Cancer Research is the equivalent of the EACR. So we pay a lot of attention to this, and so we have two types of mentoring programs. We have the one-on-one, where we pair PhDs with postdocs, postdocs with senior people, etc. But then we have the peer mentoring, which is working very well for early PIs. So these early PIs are applying for their first grants, and they’re talking with their friends, it helps a lot because they’re going through the same stage. They have a bit more time than maybe very highly accomplished PIs that are very busy and they may not be able to read in detail the grants. So typically these peer mentoring groups help with that, and also with tailoring CVs to particular agencies.

Then we have another level that is more on soft skills, like interviewing. Some people are natural interviewees, they present well, but those are not the people who need to be trained. Some women are a little bit shy. We talked about imposter syndrome. So these are skills that can be trained.

So for example, something we do at ASEICA is mock interviews, whereby you can learn through seeing. And so maybe we can think about one of these, how to go for an interview as a course or as a workshop. And these interactive workshops are usually as a group, so 20-30 people, to be effective. But these are the kind of things that maybe we could help more to put forward in the EACR. Because it tends to work very well. And then the elevator pitch. Do you know how few people are able to describe in five minutes or three minutes their work? And this is not only men and women, but I think with women perhaps we have to make a bit more effort so they can show not only their potential, but also their achievements as well.

Johanna: Yeah, I think that’s a really nice way to end this conversation, to talk about the importance of allies and partners. It’s not a zero sum game. There are so many studies, both in science but also in the corporate world, that more diverse teams do so much better. The science they produce has more of an impact when you have diverse teams. So it’s in everybody’s best interest to promote a diverse community and to support that.

And I think just to maybe close again with a personal example, we recently had a workshop for leaders at the University of Lausanne called ‘Leadership for Gender Equality’. And of course I went along to this workshop expecting it would be only women. It was 40% women and 60% men. And I thought that this was just the most encouraging sign. These were all full professors. We didn’t have to go to this. It was our choice to learn more about how to be a leader who promotes inclusivity, diversity, equality etc., and so I’m actually very optimistic about the future.

I see that also with the young men either in my lab or in the environment at the EACR meetings. This is really a huge culture change. Much like the queen bees, there will still be some men who are sexist and that is what it is, right? But the vast, vast majority of people want to see a scientific community and a cancer research community that reflects society at large. And I think that we are in a good direction in that respect.

Alexandra: I think that is a positive note to end our episode on. So thank you so much for agreeing to be guests on our podcast and for taking the time to discuss this pressing issue of gender imbalances in research that unfortunately reflects in cancer research as well.

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