Published in the European Journal of Cancer, the study explored gender equality in cancer research in the 28 EU Member States plus Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and the UK, in 2009 and 2019 to look at changes over the decade.

Led by Professor Mark Lawler, co-lead of HDR UK’s Big Data for Complex Disease programme, researchers of the All-Island e-Health Hub for Cancer looked at the numbers of female authors overall and last-author presence in published cancer research papers. They determined the authors’ sex by their name, using five sources of data to create a thesaurus of over 85,000 given names and their associated genders.

The percentage of women as authors in cancer research papers rose from 42% to 49% between 2009 and 2019. However, despite this increase in participation, female research leadership is still considerably lower – increasing from 24% to just 34% in the study period.

Female cancer research leadership was found to be typically higher in Eastern European countries and Scandinavia, compared to countries in central Europe. However, when cancer researchers from central European countries worked abroad, the percentage of women became similar to that of their host countries.

The research team suggest that the leadership of women in cancer research is heavily influenced by the availability and relative cost of childcare, which is more favourable in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe than in central/western Europe. These countries are also generous in the provision of maternity and/or paternity leave for new parents.

Professor Mark Lawler, also Professor of Digital Health at Queen’s University Belfast and Co-Lead of the All-Island e-Health Hub for Cancer and Member of the Board of the European Cancer Organisation, said:

“Results for a number of countries that are significant powerhouses for cancer research in Europe were particularly disappointing. While the UK’s overall female participation was 45%, that percentage dropped to 33% for female cancer research leadership. Results for Germany and Switzerland were even worse, only achieving 25% for female cancer research leadership.

“Therefore, it is not a lack of overall female cancer researchers, who in 17 European countries are more numerous than men. Rather, it is the 11 European countries where female cancer research leadership is less than 35%. These data do not lie. Gender inequality is a significant problem for female cancer research leaders in Europe. We must act quickly and decisively to reverse this injustice.”

Professor Yolande Lievens, Professor at Ghent University, Chair of the Radiation Oncology Department at Ghent University Hospital and joint senior author of this study said: “It is critical that we address this issue as a matter of urgency. Our data emphasise that Horizon Europe’s Cancer Mission must ensure gender equity in its future research programmes.”

From the findings of this study, the research team propose that the European Cancer Mission should aim to achieve at least 45% female senior authorship by 2035.

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