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Advancing Female Radiation Oncologists through Sponsorship

Dr. Shraddha M. Dalwadi is a PGY-2 Radiation Oncology Resident and Dr. Michelle Ludwig is an Associate Professor of Radiation Oncology at Baylor College of Medicine. Today, they are sharing with us some thoughts and practical tips related to sponsorship for females in radiation oncology.


Systemic inequity is seen in academia and leadership in radiation oncology. While over 40% of medical students are female, only 9% of department chairs and 14% of full professors are female. Women face unclear challenges obtaining faculty positions, organizational leadership, and funding opportunities at the same rates as their male counterparts [1]. A report from the Harvard Business Review titled “Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women” explores the cause of these disparities with one bold thesis: well-intentioned mentorship is simply not enough [2]. In a longitudinal study of high-performing employees by Catalyst, women are more likely than men to have mentors (83% vs 76% respectively) but less likely to be promoted as a result of such a relationship (65% vs 72% respectively). However, after instituting a formal sponsorship program, the promotion of women rose by a scale of 3:2.

Sponsorship is a step beyond traditional mentorship. While mentors provide advice and guidance, sponsors are dedicated to upward career mobility. Sponsors often harbor a high-level of influence and are willing to advocate for committee membership, competitive leadership positions, and funding. Early career women stand to benefit as much, if not more, from a formal sponsorship, particularly when it comes to navigating the “unwritten curriculum”, facilitating networking, and improving visibility in an otherwise male-dominated field. In order to be successful, sponsorship programs require a mission, adequate matching, sponsor training, and accountability.

Sounds great – but at the individual level, how can women in radiation oncology identify sponsors? (1) In my experience, sponsorship first and foremost requires trust. Before demanding advocacy, you must make yourself visible by working hard, following through, and being available. If you are at a small institution, begin networking by attending conferences, engaging in communication platforms, and volunteering for small leadership roles. Meaningful relationship-building takes time, but is paramount to the process. (2) Form multiple mentorships with role models who can advise you on your road to success. Rate your mentors on things you value, such as willingness to speak up, influence in decision-making, and experience advancing mentees. (3) Once you have identified potential sponsors, set up a meeting to gauge the right fit and assess willingness to aid in career progression. Come prepared with your CV and short- and long-term goals. (4) Pick a person and be direct in asking them to become your sponsor. Create a rough draft of a sponsorship plan with a timeline and concrete objectives for them to review. Remember, sponsorship is a give and take so consider how you will contribute to the sponsor’s growth as well when formulating this plan. (5) As your relationship with your sponsor progresses, have annual or semi-annual meetings to get/give candid feedback, review your CV, and discuss opportunities. (6) Pay it forward to others in the future!

Successful sponsorship is a win-win for both young women in radiation oncology, as well as the organizations they are a part of. Active sponsorship has the potential to improve employee engagement, increase productivity, and augment culture. Furthermore, the time to intervene is now – recent studies show that participation of women in medicine is increasing, from medical school admissions to first authorship of radiation oncology publications [3,4]. Without addressing the gender disparities present in academia and leadership in our specialty moving forward, these differences stand to persist or likely worsen. Asking others to advocate for you may seem daunting at first, but budding female radiation oncologists should consider identifying sponsors to help close the gap.

  1. Holliday, Emma B., et al. "Gender differences in publication productivity, academic position, career duration and funding among US academic radiation oncology faculty." Academic medicine: journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges 89.5 (2014): 767.

  2. Ibarra, Herminia, Nancy M. Carter, and Christine Silva. "Why men still get more promotions than women." Harvard Business Review 88.9 (2010): 80-85.

  3. Bates C, Gordon L, Travis E, et al. Striving for Gender Equity in Academic Medicine Careers: A Call to Action. Academic medicine : journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges. 2016;91(8):1050-1052. doi:10.1097/ACM.0000000000001283.

  4. Ahmed, Awad A., et al. "Gender trends in radiation oncology in the United States: A 30-year analysis." International Journal of Radiation Oncology* Biology* Physics 88.1 (2014): 33-38.

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