Can inclusive innovation help #BreakTheBias? (Guest blog)

Bias, hidden or not, impacts everyone. This International Women’s Day we are talking about how to #BreakTheBias and there is one area I continue to see as a big opportunity – cancer care and research.

Incorporating more women, and those who identify as women, into innovation and decision-making processes, we can break biases which impact outcomes and save lives. So, this #IWD let’s take a harder look at the opportunity we have and what can be done.

Women remain unrepresented in the field of cancer research

When it comes to equal representation in oncology related professional settings, the research highlights and underlying disparity. According to an ESMO (European Society for Medical Oncology) study, women accounted for only:

  • 37% of presenters at oncology congresses, and
  • 36% of board members at professional oncology societies.

The same trends are present in research and academia as women accounted for:

  • 41% of first authors which shows the largest contribution, and
  • 30% of last authors which indicates seniority.

While this imbalance shows a significant area for improvement, it also highlights another larger question: why? Are female researchers bound to more junior positions? What is preventing them from moving up and into positions of leadership? And what is the long-term impact of this imbalance? As I see it – by omitting diverse perspectives, we are doing ourselves, our companies, and the patients we serve a grave disservice. To deliver better science, smarter innovation, and better outcomes – we need more women at the table, presenting their science, and bringing their experiences and expertise boldly to the community. It makes us better!

Making diversity a priority results in better science and solutions

The importance of inclusive solutions was particularly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although women account for 70% of nurses and represent around 40% of the healthcare force, the personal protective equipment (PPE) the wear daily was designed by technical committees in compliance with standards for a default male body.

As a result, some facemasks and/or goggles did not fit the faces of female healthcare workers and left them ill-equipped and unprotected on the front lines. The fact something as universally needed and applied as PPE failed to account for half of the population is an oversight which could have been avoided had women been involved throughout the process, from design to testing. This kind of process considering sex, gender, and intersectional analysis to drive discovery, is known as gendered innovation.

The European Cancer Mission: Championing Gendered Innovation

The European Commission is a strong advocate for gender-inclusive innovation strategies, outlining significant opportunities for the Cancer Mission to include sex and gender considerations into upcoming studies, data analysis, and treatment. As we continue to build new processes, and revisit the old, we must guarantee inclusive infrastructure if we want to introduce gendered innovation.

Inclusive innovation is key to breaking biases and creating solutions which work for the greatest number of people. There is an immense opportunity, not to mention the need to support more diversity across sectors. This year as we talk about how to #BreakTheBias, let’s commit to making sure everyone is fully represented in the processes of innovation and discovery.

Kees Roks

Kees Roks is Head of Region (Europe) at Novartis Oncology
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