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The Canadian Cancer Society says it is reviewing its awards process in response to complaints that the recent winners of the organization’s awards for excellence in cancer research are all men.

“This is not a simple fix because it’s an incredibly complex issue. Gender bias is not exclusive to these awards and, in fact, it’s an issue that affects female scientists throughout their careers,” society chief executive officer Andrea Seale said in an e-mail.

“For this reason, the conversations we have on the topic need to continue. We are taking immediate steps and will continue taking action well into the future.”

The Canadian Cancer Society announced the winners of its 2019 Awards for Excellence on Monday, honouring five scientists for their achievements in advancing cancer research. But some people took to social media to point out the lack of female representation and diversity among the list of recipients.

“I was pretty upset,” said Kathleen Dickson, retired chief research technician at the Montreal Neurological Institute, who has co-written multiple articles promoting gender equality in science. “I’m happy for the men that got the awards, but why shouldn’t it be 50-50? I don’t understand what the problem is.”

Ms. Dickson and her frequent co-writer, John Bergeron, a professor of medicine at McGill University in Montreal, said the list of recipients does not reflect the pool of talented female researchers in Canada, but it points to a broader problem of failing to recognize the achievements of women in science.

This year, for instance, women were notably absent among the Nobel Prize winners in science. A Laval University-led study, published in February, found female health scientists in Canada are less likely to win grants for their research than their male counterparts.

In her e-mailed statement, Ms. Seale said the Canadian Cancer Society received 39 nominations this year, 14 (or 36 per cent) of whom were female. Over the previous eight years, 32 per cent of nominees and 21 per cent of winners were female.

She said researchers are nominated by the organizations where they work, along with two other individuals who can attest to their contributions. These nominations are then evaluated by two committees, made up of male and female members of the cancer society’s volunteer advisory council on research and previous winners.

Ms. Seale said the cancer society recognized there was a lack of diversity when it was informed of this year’s recipients. It began discussions with the volunteer advisory council, and is committed to reviewing its process to mitigate gender bias, she said. An initial meeting last week involved talks about measures, such as ensuring committee members receive training to counter bias and consulting an expert in equity, diversity and inclusion, she said.

Imogen Coe, professor in the department of chemistry and biology at Ryerson University in Toronto, said the Canadian Cancer Society is not alone in grappling with how to be more inclusive. The first step, she said, is for organizations and individuals to reflect on their own biases and processes, and to start having uncomfortable conversations about racism, sexism and elitism.

By doing so, Dr. Coe said, “Ultimately, you can come out the other side with a better, fairer, more inclusive, but an ultimately more excellent system that truly recognizes true merit.”

The winners of the Canadian Cancer Society 2019 Awards for Excellence, each of which comes with a $20,000 contribution to the recipients’ research, were: Jerry Pelletier, Timothy Whelan, Darren Brenner, David Palma and Benjamin Haibe-Kains.

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