Because it’s now 2018--- Leadership and gender equity in Canada’s science and research organizations and programmes

Posted on Friday, June 29, 2018

Author: Paul Dufour

Paul Dufour

Senior Fellow and Adjunct Professor, ISSP
Principal, Paulicyworks

The federal Science Minister has launched a nation-wide consultation to adapt a made in Canada Athena SWAN initiative, the internationally recognized venture that celebrates higher education institutions that have implemented practices to advance equity, diversity and inclusion in the sciences, especially in addressing gender equality.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made his now famous remark—”because it’s 2015″—about gender parity in his newly-appointed Cabinet, it attracted a lot of attention at home and abroad.

He followed it up with a high-level panel on gender parity at Davos where he promoted women’s rights across the spectrum of society, including science and sustainable development. Since then, he has made the gender equality issue a leitmotif of his tenure, showcasing his feminist mantra at home and abroad, most notably at the G7 Summit in Charlevoix where a high level gender equality advisory panel presented its numerous findings to the leaders present. Further, the PM has appointed Canada’s first female chief science advisor, Mona Nemer, not to mention a former astronaut, Julie Payette, as Governor General. They have been as activist as the science minister, Kirsty Duncan (only the second female federal science minister in over four decades), on this issue as well (as has been Ontario’s Chief Scientist, Molly Shoichet).

But if there is one area that has traditionally resisted the equality calling, it is science and technology. Things continue to move slowly on the gender front for science, technology and engineering--or STEM.
As the federal science minister has argued, “I have been fighting for change so that young girls and women would not have to face the challenges I did. However, it saddens me to say that only 22 per cent of Canadians working in STEM fields are women. In 1987, it was 20 per cent; that’s an increase of two per cent in nearly 30 years.” As a result, the Government’s Choose Science campaign has been an attempt to address some of this gap.

According to an assessment by Sophia Huyer from the UNESCO 2015 Science report, the Canadian situation is not unique. Female university students are a majority in North America (57 per cent), Central and South America (49 per cent to 67 per cent) and even more so across the Caribbean (57 per cent to 85 per cent). Women are pursuing bachelors and masters degrees and outnumber men at these levels with 53 per cent of graduates, but their numbers drop off abruptly at the PhD level. There, male graduates (57 per cent) overtake women students. The discrepancy widens at the researcher level, with men now representing 72 per cent of the global pool.

It is clear that the high proportion of women in tertiary education is not necessarily translating into a greater presence in research nor in governance and decision-making roles. In fact, apart the national science and nature museums leadership, today, there is only one other major federal science organization or agency that has a female at its head-- the Canada Foundation for Innovation. All of the others, including with the most recent appointments to the NRC and CIHR are male led. Indeed, only 20% of women lead and 10% chair the large family of Networks of Centres of Excellence programmes. The Boards of a number of federal research organizations remain deficient when it comes to gender equality. And prestigious global recognition remains illusive. Canada has never had a woman Nobel science recipient and since 1991, only one woman has received Canada’s highest science and engineering award bestowed by NSERC. 

Barriers persist and poorly-informed perceptions remain. The UNESCO essay argues for some key changes to address the under-representation and gender discrimination that persists. Among these are: commit to the equal representation of women in science, research, and innovation management and decision-making; support gender equality and diversity through funding, programming and the monitoring of progress; and introduce fellowships and grants to increase the scope of representation.

A 2017 Science and Policy Exchange Café on Breaking Gender Barriers in STEM echoed much of this by noting that undergrad and grad student participants consistently identified barriers relating to role models and mentorship. Most obvious to young girls and women is the lack of female role models in leadership positions. Not being able to see yourself in a specific position makes it more difficult to imagine attaining that position. Furthermore, these role models have had a difficult journey or have had to adapt in ways to succeed in the biased system sometimes making them difficult to relate to, and women who do make it to leadership positions tend to take on more mentorships or feel pressured to. This can add additional time commitments and pressure while navigating their own difficulties.

Following the 2010 political debacle triggered by the total absence of female candidates in the first round of the Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) program, the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) was asked to assess the broader issues of underrepresentation of women in science. Its report made clear that: the pathway to becoming a researcher is laid before university. The use of a life course perspective is critical to understand the career trajectories of women researchers. Socialization, schemas, and stereotypes define social roles and expectations, and contribute to the lack of encouragement for girls to forge non-traditional paths. Not to be overlooked is the role of community colleges and CEGEPS—encouraging women in science is not just about filling pipelines and academic careers; more needs to be done to foster attention of the issue in all sectors of our higher education sector. 

And yet, today, eight years after the first tranche of CERCs, there is only one female out of the 26 chairholders. After pressure from the science minister and new equity, diversity and inclusion guidelines, the newest program of Canada 150 Research Chairs has responded to the gender equality issue with 14 women selected out of the 24 chairholders.

To be sure, there are many organizations promoting and empowering women in knowledge sectors. There are some helpful prizes and incentives, including the NSERC research chairs for women in science and engineering along with the work of outreach science groups such as Actua, l’ACFAS, Let’s Talk Science and Youth Science Canada. The University of Ottawa’s Education and Research Institute has just launched a national archive celebrating pioneering women in science and engineering.

Today, social media has a strong role to play in promoting a fairer science in Canada—science blogging and journalism of and by women is on the increase as are narratives detailing the power and passion of the sciences and research (in all disciplines) that is making a difference.

The private sector has a responsibility as well and needs to step up and do more in its hiring practices, including support for women in the form of training, access to finance, and backing for entrepreneurship.

Ultimately, there is the critical role of signals to society from our leaders...

In a June 21 tweet, the science minister underscored that : Now, we have the opportunity to lead science policy as Chief Science Advisor & Minister of Science, respectively. I know young girls take notice as more leadership roles are taken by women.

All of this is laudable. And yes, progress is being made.

But if rhetoric is to become reality, more needs to be done to address the critical gender leadership gap within our major research organizations, programmes and facilities. It’s 2018 after all…..

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