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Conference hears of women’s continued frustration over equity in STEM fields

“I’m a little bit saddened that in 2018 we’re still talking about this,” says chief science advisor Mona Nemer.

By TIM LOUGHEED | DEC 19 2018

More than a generation ago there were loud noises being made throughout academia about the need to bring more women into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, from kindergarten all the way through to postdoctoral work. Studies were conducted, programs were put in place, and indeed many women followed through to build successful careers in these fields.

Nevertheless, participants at a conference held in Ottawa at the end of November described how they continue to hear these same calls for equity, diversity and inclusion in STEM, leaving them frustrated.

“In 1982, when I was a grad student at McGill University, we were talking about this,” said Mona Nemer, Canada’s chief science advisor. “We were showing statistics and were afraid that we hadn’t moved the yardstick sufficiently. I’m a little bit saddened that in 2018 we’re still talking about this. In any other area we would call this a dismal failure.”

Nor are the implications of such failure confined to academic life, according to the federal minister of science and sport, Kirsty Duncan, who reflected on her own scientific career and the way that society and the economy benefit when everyone participates in such work.

“We need women at the table,” she insisted. “We need everyone in the classroom, in the field and in the lab. We will ask different questions and we’ll get better results.”

Drs. Nemer and Duncan were among a wide array of speakers at the one-day event that weighed the current status of these efforts and new ways of tackling a stubborn problem. The proceedings revolved around two complementary themes: the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4, which calls for universal equitable and inclusive education, and Canada 2067, a national initiative to prioritize STEM learning over the next 50 years.

Although the aim of the gathering was to determine how Canada can best prepare students for a world driven by scientific and technological change, many of the discussions focused on the difficulties around gender equity.

The precise nature of this challenge was outlined by Liette Vasseur, president of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO. She presented some key findings from a report she recently co-authored, The Non-Linear Paths of Women in STEM (PDF), which detailed the way in which women have been entering various postsecondary programs and the rates at which they graduate.

Among the most significant trends noted in the report has been a jump in the number of mature female students, who are often returning to their education after taking time out to start a family. While only about 20 percent of the younger cohort graduate, the rate for these older women is four times higher, said Dr. Vasseur. Yet institutions routinely mount barriers to the latter, who find themselves restricted in their ability to obtain support or even access to certain courses.

“Many of our universities were created in the 1950s and 1960s, formed when the post-war boom created a demand for educated students,” said Dr. Vasseur, noting that those students were then assumed to be primarily male and arriving directly from high school. “We need to really think through who is coming back to university now.”

Nor does the challenge stop there, observed Barbara Vanderhyden, who holds the Corinne Boyer Chair in Ovarian Cancer Research at the University of Ottawa. After being directly involved in hiring no fewer than 22 new faculty members during her career, she has been regularly disappointed by the paucity of female candidates for these posts.

“The pool is there,” she said, referring to the large numbers of women with the necessary academic qualifications. “But they’re not applying.”

The reluctance of women to pursue a career in science may speak to its enduring reputation as a male bastion, explained Eden Hennessey, research and program director of the Laurier Centre for Women in Science at Wilfrid Laurier University.

“Science as a culture has a problem with sexism,” she said, citing U.S. research indicating that female academics experience sexual harassment at a rate second only to women in the military. “We’ve seen some good return on investment with regard to girls’ performance and engagement with science as a result of programs and initiatives over the years. However, there are still some substantial barriers to women being retained in science at the postsecondary level and beyond.”

Similar barriers can be found in industry, said Tina Kalopisis, a senior lab manager with 3M Canada. She insisted that the key to change was ensuring that the next generation of women can find mentors and role models to help them move forward. With two young children of her own and a high-powered job, she is eager to tell these newcomers that it is possible to do both.

“I feel that it’s my obligation to send the elevator back down and tell them ‘come on up’,” she said. “But they are hesitant to step into the elevator.”

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