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International Women’s Day: Lifting Each Other Up and the Way Forward With Alankrita Taneja, Maria Badillo, Ulka Vaishampayan, and Morana Vojnic

In celebration of Women's Day on March 8, Oncology Data Advisor hosted a live panel discussion in which the women of our Editorial Board and Fellows Forum share what the day means to them, progress that has been made in female representation in leadership roles, continued obstacles to overcome, and the value of encouraging and mentoring other women in the field. 

Keira Smith: Thank you so much for joining this special edition of Oncology Data Advisor in honor of International Women's Day. We have a really unique discussion planned for today with some members of our Editorial Board and Fellows Forum members. We'll also have some time at the end to answer questions, so if anybody listening has a question or comment to share, feel free to type it into the chat on YouTube and we can spend some time at the end answering those questions. Without further ado, I will turn it over to the host of today's discussion, Dr. Alankrita Taneja, and we can get started with some introductions and then launch into the discussion.

Alankrita Taneja, MD: Thank you so much, Keira. I'm Alankrita. I'm one of the third-year Fellows at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. I'm very delighted to be hosting this conversation with a wonderful panel today. To begin, would Morana and Maria like to introduce themselves?

Morana Vojnic, MD, MBA: Happy to. Hi everyone, my name is Morana Vojnic. I'm a Thoracic Medical Oncologist and Neuro-Oncologist here at Northwell Cancer Institute at Lenox Hill Hospital. It's a pleasure to be here.

Maria Badillo, MSN, RN, OCN®, CCRP: Good morning, my name is Maria Badillo. I'm a Research Nurse Manager in the Lymphoma/Myeloma Department at MD Anderson Cancer Center here in Houston, Texas. I'm really honored to be part of the panel.

Dr. Taneja: Thank you so much. I know this day is very close to all of our hearts. Being a woman in the medical field comes with a unique set of challenges, and we all hold a special significance for the day in our lives. Do each of you have any special thoughts on what International Women's Day means to you particularly?

Dr. Vojnic: Ever since I was a little girl, I remember International Women's Day was the time where my dad would give my mom flowers. Actually, when I was a kid, he and my brother would both give flowers to me in honor of Women's Day. I think this is a very important day for all of us because our ancestors—ancestors, meaning women—had to go through a lot of challenges to allow us to be where we are today, because times have changed significantly. Without the hard work and the empowerment of women back in those days, we wouldn't be where we are today, and we wouldn't have the opportunities that we have.

Dr. Taneja: That's very heartwarming to hear how you celebrated this day while growing up with your family and how the men in your family supported the day. That's wonderful. We actually have Dr. Vaishampayan with us as well. Dr. Vaishampayan, would you like to introduce yourself?

Ulka Vaishampayan, MD: Hi, I'm Ulka Vaishampayan. I'm a Medical Oncology and Professor of Medicine at the University of Michigan.

Dr. Taneja: Welcome. We are very happy to be hosting this discussion today. We were just talking about what International Women's Day means to us. Do you have any unique perspective on that?

Dr. Vaishampayan: My perspective on International Women's Day is that we need to work towards a world where this day is not required—a world where we've achieved complete lack of any disparity in women getting opportunities or by gender being discriminated against for promotions and for moving forward in different fields, careers, and jobs all across the continuum. I feel like even in interviews for new positions or proceeding along in journeys such as medical school, for instance, there is inequity in the number of women entering the field versus males. Going further up the ranks in terms of promotions, being promoted to chiefs of department or cancer center chiefs or multiple other positions; we're just not seeing as many women proceed and get those positions.

It's probably similar for nursing, for multiple other specialties within medicine, for the whole team. I think it's also true in the corporate world. I don't think we are terribly different, except the expectations from patients and from all of the surrounding colleagues tend to more of females. They tend to sometimes assume that because you are going to proceed with kids and family, you will sort of give your career a backseat. This is not always correct, as time has shown. Again, we keep on having to prove ourselves. The hope is that we will achieve that kind of equity. Obviously, we want to maintain our individuality and a lot of assets that we have as women—more efficient, more caring, more compassionate, potentially—but we also need to work towards that equity for both the younger generation going forward. As well as for all of our peers.

Dr. Taneja: Absolutely, those were such strong and empowering words. Ms. Badillo, do you have any thoughts as well on that?

Ms. Badillo: For me, International Women's Day is the day to celebrate the successes and achievements of women. We continue to support and acknowledge women's rights and contributions, whether in the medical field, or like Dr. Vaishampayan said, anywhere. For us, nursing is actually the largest health care occupation where women are dominating the workforce. There are 3 million of us, and women make up more than almost 86% of those workers. Starting in the mid–nineteenth century with Florence Nightingale, the nursing occupation is where women have been portrayed as humble, gentle, compassionate, and the nurturing. I think as women, we have the tender, nurturing side that we can provide to our patients.

Dr. Taneja: That's a very, very interesting perspective, but I think we still have a long way to go, even in nursing. Would you like to shed light on any areas of more equity or more leadership that even our nurses are not able to reach because of disparity or discrimination?

Ms. Badillo: Like I said, the nursing field is dominated by women. I've seen nurses get to leadership roles, which I'm really proud of. Not only do they go to leadership management, but they also mentor new nurses. These women mentors are great, especially for those new nursing graduates who are striving to be better nurses. I do believe for the nursing side that we have more opportunities to go higher—not only doing bedside care but going on to management and leadership positions. Now with the education, a lot of nurses are actually going on to do their Masters and their PhDs.

Dr. Taneja: That's great to hear. We actually have a wonderful panel of women leaders here, and I would like to ask you all, since I am quite early on in my career, what is your advice for the next generation of women oncologists and women nurses? How can we reach these positions of power and leadership? And what are the challenges that you've faced throughout the journey and any advice you have? Dr. Vojnic, if you'd like to start.

Dr. Vojnic, Sure, thank you so much. I'm still kind of early on as well, but from my perspective, I've been fortunate in my life, as I said, to have a very supportive family and very supportive men in my family. In my career, I've had a lot of supportive mentors who were actually male. I think times have changed and improved, for sure. My advice is to be honest, fight for what's right, be ethical, be moral, and fight for your patients. You're never going to be wrong when you fight for your patients, no matter what. Just talk to the people you have around you. Anybody can be as long as they understand the full picture. I'm we all have teams, and I have a terrific team. We just openly talk to each other, and each one of us has a role in the whole care spectrum and in the whole goal spectrum. As long as you're open and do what's right, you're going to go forward, and you're going to go high. So, just do what's right. That's my perspective.

Dr. Vaishampayan: My message would be, first of all, to try and make your achievements or whatever merits of the job that you're doing known to others. Frequently, as females, we tend to assume that we've doing such a great job, we've been doing it so well, that automatically we will be offered the next position and the next promotion. That doesn't always happen. Some of it may just be through an inadvertent lack of awareness of what you're doing. It is important to mention your papers, your achievements, if you presented at a conference, if you received some kind of honor. It's important to make it known to your superiors and to your colleagues, not necessarily to tout your own horn, but mainly to increase the awareness of your achievements.

Also, lifting other women up along with yourself, even doing that for one other female is a big, big service that you can do towards narrowing this disparity gap. Those would be my top two things that I can think of for new people and also existing, established people in the different careers.

Ms. Badillo: For me, actually nursing is my second career. My sister is a nurse, and my sister-in-law is a nurse. I'm surrounded by family and friends who are nurses. I really love to hear all their stories, and they have actually inspired me to be a better nurse. In return, like I mentioned earlier, I prioritize mentorship, I agree with Ulka that mentorship is really, really important. In return, I try to mentor my nurses and try to provide a good example. Nursing can be overwhelming both physically and emotionally. I really believe in mentorship, like Morana and Ulka said. We need to support each other and be happy when other women are gaining leadership roles and moving towards their goals. Like I said earlier, some nurses continue towards their PhDs, so I support them and try to mentor them.

Dr. Vaishampayan: I agree. Extending that helping hand to each other is so critical in moving things forward quicker.

Dr. Taneja: So, having a woman army or a team of women just empowering each other is what we should look for. Even men, like you all said, you've had very supportive men in your lives. Adding to that, what do you think men can do, apart from the mentorship that we've already talked about, to achieve more equality in some of the leadership roles or research roles where women are not considered as strongly or as equitably as men?

Dr. Vaishampayan: I think just prioritizing fairness of trying to get to the merits of the situation. That's an important thing, no matter man or woman, when bestowing these leadership positions or merit-based positions that you have. The other thing is just being supportive and not too judgmental. I think those would be my main things. Most men now, I think, are realizing the importance of this. Actually, it's been shown at least in the corporate world that there is better productivity as they get more and more women in the leadership position. I think it benefits all of us; it benefits society to do that. I feel like the more men start realizing that and continuing their support, we are seeing more and more of that tremendous awareness as well as the increasing support. Continuing further on that path would be great.

Ms. Badillo: For me, I think it's more personal because my husband is a nurse, and he was a nurse before me. He was the one who encouraged me and said, "This is a great profession." I've seen him to be a great, great nurse. Again, he and other people like my sister are the ones who've given me a great example. In terms of work, it was my principal investigator (PI) who really believed in what I can bring to the team and bring for my patients. All throughout the years that I've been working in clinical research, if they haven't had that trust and belief in my skills, I would not be where I am right now. I really respect them and am thankful for that opportunity where they trusted me and knew that I could go anywhere—not that we're just going to stay in one position because we're women, but that all throughout the years, we're able to move up and explore and make our skills better. I am very happy that I have that support.

Dr. Vaishampayan: I would totally agree with building your own support team of family, friends, whoever. It also helps you with reducing the stress of your job among the different challenges, and it helps with work-life balance in the long run.

Dr. Vojnic: As Ulka said before, speaking up for yourself in these instances is so important, because a lot of things might go unnoticed—not on purpose, but they just go unnoticed. You really have to speak up and create your whole team, and you can do it all. We've encountered these situations of "Can I have kids; can I have a family and still have a professional life?" Yes, you can. I am a single mom of a 12-year-old boy, and I'm proud that I raised him throughout my training and everything else. You can do it all. Just put your mind to it, have the right support system, and don't forget to speak up.

Dr. Vaishampayan: Easier said than done, but I agree a lot of us don't do that enough.

Dr. Taneja: I totally agree. In fact, I'll just give you an example of my own story. I was preparing my curriculum vitae (CV) for my first job, and I tried to put in all the important things that I thought would be the most significant in my career. But even when I was applying for my visas and things like that, the lawyers actually told me that my application needed to be stronger in order to be considered for some of these visas. Then I added all the other things that I had done, and my lawyer was very surprised, because they were just wondering why I had not added those things in the first place. I don't know why we women do that. Thank you so much for all of that advice, and I'm sure all our viewers will benefit very much from this discussion. To conclude, are there any bias or obstacles you've faced in your career that you have successfully overcome that we can also learn from?

Dr. Vaishampayan: Similar to what we covered, being passed over for awards and things because of lack of self-promotion is something that I've noticed. Then when I tried to meet and say something about it, to ask why I was not considered when I had better accomplishments than whoever else was in consideration, the answer came back as "Oh, we didn't know about all these things." That's where I feel like it's still hard for me to keep pushing things that I've done and that I've accomplished. It is definitely a sore reminder that it's necessary to be done.

Dr. Vojnic: I want to echo that exactly—that experience and to constantly keep reminding yourself that you have to speak up and show your CV and show your publications and show your awards and everything else, because constantly, some things can go unnoticed.

Dr. Vaishampayan: Then I feel like the other thing that I've noticed is that people around me tended to assume that I am going to sort of give my career a backseat because I have kids, young kids that we are raising and all of that. Even at job interviews for new employees, the interviewer is probably thinking, "Oh my God, this is the right age. She's going to start having kids soon, and is that going to be her focus?" I have no good tips as to how to overcome that bias, but I just want to make people aware of that bias. I feel like, in fact, raising kids has improved my efficiency tenfold. Maybe we can address it head on, just in a joking manner, and say, "Of course, with little kids, I can do so much more than I used to before, and I thought I was busy before." I feel like that is another bias that a lot of women face. It's either unconscious or conscious bias, but an awareness about that bias and trying to overcome that for all of us, men or women, is important.

Dr. Taneja: Absolutely. I've heard that many times, that women are sometimes not considered for jobs because a woman is recently married and her employer thinks they're probably going to get pregnant soon. They're like, "Oh, she's going to take a lot of time off." But I guess men would also take time off if they were to have a child. I've heard that for many women. I don't have a kid yet, but I've heard that children actually make us better doctors and nurses and just better in our professions overall. So, thank you so much for this wonderful discussion. Any concluding thoughts or anything you'd like to say?

Dr. Vaishampayan: I think on this International Women's Day, we need to make the commitment towards helping other women. Helping each other lifts up all of us.

Dr. Vojnic: I want to echo that, for sure. Again, talk to your peers, talk to your superiors, talk to your team. Just speak up and do the right thing. You can do it all. You're a woman, but you can do it all. You can have a family, and you can have a career. That's my message.

Ms. Badillo: Yes, I agree. in addition, in return, mentor your fellow women. When they see that somebody is helping them and supporting them, they will think, "I can do this." They will believe in themselves.

Dr. Taneja: I'll turn it back over to Keira.

Keira Smith: Awesome, thank you all so much. This is such amazing advice, and it's really inspiring to hear and to share with our audience. Thank you all so much for taking the time today, and I'll wish everybody a happy International Women's Day.

Dr. Vaishampayan: Same to all of you. Thank you.

About the Speakers

Alankrita Taneja, MD, is a Hematology/Oncology Fellow at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. She is interested in multiple myeloma and cellular therapies and is passionate about humanism and equitable care.

Maria Badillo, MSN, RN, OCN®, CCRP, is the Research Nurse Manager in the Mantle Cell Lymphoma/Myeloma Department at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. As a clinical trial manager, she develops research strategies and programs, manages protocol design and implementation, and coordinates patient participation in phase 1, 2, and 3 clinical trials. Ms. Badillo has been a speaker at several conferences, including the Oncology Nursing Society Congress and the Academy of Oncology Nurse and Patient Navigators Conference. Her research focuses on the development of novel therapeutics for patients with hematologic malignancies and the management of adverse events to optimize treatment outcomes.

Ulka Vaishampayan, MD, is a Professor of Internal Medicine and the Director of the Phase 1 Program at the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center. She is also the Chair of the SWOG Advanced Renal Committee, a member of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Renal Task Force, and a board member of the Michigan Society of Hematology/Oncology. Dr. Vaishampayan specializes in the treatment of genitourinary malignancies, including prostate cancer, bladder cancer, and renal cell carcinoma, and her research focuses on translational drug development. She has authored or coauthored numerous publications in peer-reviewed journals.

Morana Vojnic, MD, MBA, is an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell Health and a Medical Oncologist at Lenox Hill Hospital, where she serves as Director of Oncologic Services in the Brain and Spine Metastases Program. She specializes in thoracic and neuro-oncology, with expertise in the treatment of lung cancer, mediastinal tumors, head and neck cancer, brain cancer, and metastatic lesions of the brain and spine. With a background in molecular genetics, Dr. Vojnic designs personalized treatment plans and protocols using targeted drugs, immunotherapy, and chemotherapy for the treatment of patients with these diseases.

Transcript edited for clarity. Any views expressed above are the speakers' own and do not necessarily reflect those of oncology Data Advisor. 

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