Role Models Matter

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Female STEM leaders are rising to the highest level of politics and power

By Debbie Lawes

The face of Canadian science is changing, and it’s starting with women at the top.

Drs. Kirsty Duncan (federal science minister), Mona Nemer (Canada’s chief science advisor), Molly Shoichet (Ontario’s first chief scientist) and former astronaut Julie Payette (now Governor General) are not only raising the profile of female scientists in Canada, they are also vocal advocates for increasing the ranks of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), particularly in academia.

“When our research community includes people from diverse backgrounds with unique experiences, knowledge and perspectives, we are all one step closer to the next breakthrough idea or discovery. Broad perspectives breed great science,” Duncan told delegates attending a conference on science policy in Ottawa last November.

The social and economic benefits of having more female STEM leaders are well documented. Yet, numerous studies have highlighted the slow progress of women’s participation in STEM fields – particularly natural sciences and engineering – and the chronic low number of women in academic leadership.

The trajectory is changing, albeit slowly. A report last year from TD Economics (Women and STEM: Bridging the Divide) found  that women have accounted for 30% of employment growth in STEM since 2010, but still make up less than one-quarter of employment in these occupations.

These challenges are not unique to Canada. Many countries are struggling to address a gender imbalance that has gained even greater prominence in the era of #MeToo, the social movement which has made the treatment of women in the workforce a national issue in many countries.

Duncan has been very open about the discrimination she experienced during her career as a scientist.

“I was told the reason I was getting paid in the bottom 10th percentile was because I was a woman. I was asked by a fellow faculty member during a staff meeting when I planned on getting pregnant. I was asked to choose how I wanted to be treated: as a woman or as a scientist,” said Duncan, a medical geographer who led an expedition to the Norwegian arctic in search of the origins of the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Similar stories are being shared by other women who recently moved into senior government posts. Payette – an engineer, military pilot, deep sea diver and former astronaut – has recalled how a high school counsellor once suggested that she consider a career as an airline flight attendant. When she attended pre-university physics classes and engineering classes at McGill University she was often the only female student. Fortunately, she had a supportive family who encouraged her to pursue her dreams. “I was never discouraged from trying,” she said in her Oct. 2 installation speech.

Payette’s exceptional career, which includes being the first Canadian to board the International Space Station, makes her a popular role model for girls thinking about a career in traditionally male-dominated fields.

Dr. Mona Nemer in a uOttawa lab alongside PhD candidate Jamie Whitcomb. Since being appointed Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Nemer still regularly visits students and oversees their research and studies. Photo: Bonnie Findley

Nemer has told about growing up during a time when women were generally discouraged from pursuing scientific or technical careers. When she learned that her all-girls school in Beirut, Lebanon didn’t offer a science curriculum, she successfully advocated for the high school to change its policy.

When she did her PhD in chemistry at McGill University, she said there were no female professors in a department of about 40.

Now, as Canada’s second ever chief science advisor – and the first woman to hold the position – Dr. Nemer is championing what she describes as a “systematic approach to supporting increased diversity.” She has called for a society-wide effort where governments, scientific organizations, research granting agencies and educational institutions adopt policies and procedures that support the development and promotion of STEM role models that reflect gender, ethnic and cultural diversity.

“Having inspiring role models is paramount. We must therefore ensure that our public and institutional policies allow them to develop and be promoted in all areas of science and technology,” she told a summit on gender equality in sciences in Montreal last November. However, she added that by using traditional criteria such as evidence of leadership, social engagement and previous research credentials, in addition to academic excellence, “we unconsciously favour certain groups”.

Changing structures is key

Nemer wants consideration given to achievements, “not positions held, which favour careerists and those who have been in the system for over 20 years”.

“If we require them to have been Chair of a department, Vice-Dean, Dean or Vice-President before being considered for the presidency of a university, a research organization or granting council—positions that still involve mostly male-dominated processes—we will not succeed at diversifying the leadership of our institutions,” she told delegates attending Gender Summit 11 North America 2017. “Boards and hiring committees should be reminded of that.”

Payette has echoed the need for structural changes: “part of it is cultural, part of it is the way the mechanisms are within the universities, the structure, the academic world that may not foster the retention of people,” she told an audience at Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in July 2017.

Support for change is coming from the highest corridors of political power. One of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first tasks after winning the 2015 election was to appoint Canada’s first gender-balanced Cabinet, and to name Duncan as the country’s first full minister of science since 1993. His party has also embraced “gender budgeting” – a mechanism that allows governments to use administrative and fiscal policy to promote gender equality.

Trudeau’s feminist agenda is permeating through other federal legislation, policies and programs. They include: new international trade agreements with Trade and Gender chapters – a first for any G7/G20 country; legislation to encourage greater diversity on corporate boards; requiring the new $400-million Venture Capital Catalyst Initiative to provide gender balance reports; and, a commitment to focus Canada’s G7 presidency this year on advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Industry is paying attention as well, driven largely by a serious shortage of tech talent to meet the booming job demand, particularly in healthcare and STEM fields. That imperative has driven groups like Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters which recently released an action plan aimed at encouraging more women to join the manufacturing workforce; currently women hold just 28% of manufacturing jobs in Canada – a number that hasn’t changed in three decades.

In January, General Motors of Canada Co. announced plans to establish a $1.8-million fund that will offer university scholarships and other initiatives to encourage more young women and girls in STEM.

“General Motors is redefining mobility and focused on realizing our vision of a world with zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion. We believe that to realize this vision, we will need to support far greater participation in STEM,” said GM Canada president and managing director Steve Carlisle.

Carrots and sticks

That top-down support for what the Liberal government has branded “inclusive innovation” and “inclusive economic growth” is prompting a more forceful approach to changing what has become an endemic and stubborn status quo.

The University of Toronto’s Girls’ Leadership in Engineering Experience (LEE) program offers hands-on engineering workshops that connect female students, faculty and alumni. Photo: U of T Engineering

For example, frustrated by the lack of female candidates selected for the prestigious Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program, Duncan put Canadian universities on notice that she is open to forcing the issue if university leaders ignore their responsibilities to engage and promote more women in science. Only 30 percent of the 1,612 positions in the program are held by women and there were two times more men nominated than women.

As a first step to fix this imbalance, the government announced changes to the CRC program in 2017, including a cap on the renewal of Tier 1 chairs and firm equity targets for universities applying for CRCs and Canada Excellence Research Chairs. Universities had until mid-December to submit Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Action Plans that will map out how they will meet their equity and diversity targets in the CRC program or risk having funding withdrawn.

Shoichet, a world-leading researcher in tissue engineering and 2017 Killam Prize winner, has said she supports Duncan’s plan to increase the number of women-held CRCs. She has also lauded institutions like the University of Toronto for holding outreach programs, including the Girls’ Leadership in Engineering Experience weekend for female high-school students.

“We have a lot of sexism I’m not sure men and women are even aware of – on our campus and in our communities. Step one is to recognize there’s an issue and to talk about it, and step two is to do something about it,” Shoichet said in an interview with StartUp HERE Toronto last summer.

Such structural changes are designed to create the conditions where more mid-career researchers—particularly women, Indigenous peoples, visible minorities and persons with disabilities—are applying and being nominated.

“Until you touch the money, people do not move,” says Dr. Nadia Octave, a medical physicist at Centre-Hospitalier Universitaire de Québec and an outspoken champion for women in STEM. “Minister Duncan has set very clear expectations and is forcing the universities to pay attention … We need to take advantage of this moment to make real change on the ground.”

Early signs of change

Though early days, there are positive signs of systemic change at academic institutions. Universities Canada, the organization representing universities across the country, recently released a five-year strategy, called the Action Plan for Inclusive Excellence, which includes a commitment to collect and publicly disclose demographics on under-represented groups.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research have also developed equity frameworks and strategies. CIHR has made unconscious-bias training mandatory for all peer reviewers. And, major universities like Waterloo have committed to setting firm targets for improved gender equality and diversity at their institutions.

Dr. Melanie Martin, Director of the Magnetic Resonance Microscopy Centre at the University of Winnipeg.

“I am really impressed with Justin Trudeau and happy he appointed Minister Duncan.  We are encouraged as researchers because she understands the issues. She discussed the elephant in the room and now more and more women are talking and taking action,” says Dr. Melanie Martin, Director, Magnetic Resonance Microscopy Centre at the University of Winnipeg.

Dr. Lesley Shannon, Associate Professor, at Simon Fraser University’s School of Engineering Science and an advocate for women in engineering, says top-down leadership and action is essential “because universities do not change quickly. They are institutions and they are huge… You need a stick to get things going and make them the norm.”

Dr. Lesley Shannon, Associate Professor, School of Engineering, Simon Fraser University

Martin also stressed the importance of role models in STEM. “In my lab we are all women and Indigenous researchers.  As a professor, I have attracted more women to the field because I am visible.”

Martin cautioned however that the challenges are complex and the solutions not simple. She noted that it’s still “incredibly difficult” to raise a family as a scientist. “I was on bedrest during my pregnancy, and after maternity leave I continued to breastfeed for another year. When I returned I had to scramble to build up my lab and start publishing again while my husband was already a Tier 1 (Canada Research) Chair.”

“We need to address the full spectrum from primary school onwards to overcome the effects of bias,” Martin added. “When CV’s come in it is still Bob and Dave that get hired, while Molly and Mohamed are overlooked.”

With files from Kelly Nolan

Liberal government gender initiatives

(since coming to power November 2015)

  • Appointed Canada’s first gender-balanced cabinet
  • Appointed more women, visible minorities, and Indigenous people to Canada’s Senate
  • Appointed Kirsty Duncan as Minister of Science
  • Named Dr. Mona Nemer as Canada’s new and first female Chief Science Advisor
  • Implemented Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) in the development of policies, including a Gender Statement for Budget 2017
  • Launched the CanCode program to encourage more young women to pursue careers in STEM
  • 60,000 new student work placements over the next five years, including more co-op placements for students in STEM and business programs
  • Launched the $70-million Women in Technology Fund through the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) and subsequently increased it to $200-million in Budget 2018
  • An additional $1.4 billion over three years, starting in 2018-19, in new financing for women entrepreneurs through the BDC
  • Created the Canada-United States Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders
  • Signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the US and Mexico to promote women’s entrepreneurship and the growth of women-owned enterprises in North America

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