Women in science: challenges and opportunities

Monday, January 28, 2013

Mélanie Béchard, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

Curious. Bold. Resilient. Lucky.

These were all adjectives used by the panelists at a recent roundtable discussion at McGill University entitled Women in Science: Challenges and Opportunities.

The esteemed panelists – whose titles, accomplishments and accolades are too numerous to mention here – included Brenda Milner, Victoria Kaspi and Rima Rozen from McGill, and Jane Stewart from Concordia.

The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences’ president-elect Antonia Maioni chaired the discussion, which was hosted by the Royal Society of Canada and the Royal Society of the UK.

Interestingly, most members of the panel felt they had never personally experienced gender-related bias during their careers as leading scientists.

“I’ve never felt that being a woman was relevant,” said Dr. Milner, who was recently featured in The Globe and Mail. She added that her success in psychology research was neither because of nor in spite of being a woman.

However, Dr. Rozen pointed to a recent study from Yale University where research faculty were given two identical CVs to choose from: one with a man’s name and one with a woman’s. The researchers were overwhelmingly more likely to select the male candidate, and offer him a higher salary, more mentorship opportunities, etc.

The female researchers were equally as likely to make this gender-based distinction as the male researchers were, Dr. Rozen added.

Recent studies show that in Canada, the gender split in the sciences at the undergraduate and graduate levels is essentially even. However, the higher up the chain you go, the fewer women you find.

In the social sciences and humanities, 48 percent of assistant professors and 28 percent of full professors are women. These numbers drop even further in the natural sciences and engineering, with women making up 24 percent of assistant professors and only nine percent of full professors. 

While some of the challenges rest within our individual mindsets, “there are some things institutions and organizations can do,” Dr. Rozen noted, citing more flexibility in the tenure track, especially for women who take leave; dealing with issues with respect to promotion; and distribution of tasks within departments, as examples.  

“Biases still exist; we need to sensitize people,” she added.

Dr. Kaspi noted women are more likely to question their merit and expertise than men. “I wish I hadn't wasted all that energy wondering if I belonged in physics,” she said, referring to her days at graduate school. “Ultimately, your energy is better spent looking forward.”

Dr. Milner noticed the same sort of self-doubt in the classroom and at conferences. “We ask ourselves if our question is stupid before we ask it, and by the time we’ve finished questioning ourselves, a man asks the same question, and it’s less well-framed than yours,” she laughed.

Dr. Stewart noted a similar experience in her role as a member of the RSC. She recalled a group of colleagues years ago bemoaning the lack of women in sciences in the RSC. Membership is based on nominations from existing members, but women seem less likely to request those nominations, she observed. “I had men ask me to nominate them, but I never had a woman ask me to nominate them,” she noted.

“We're not taught to promote ourselves, we're not the first to put up our hands in the classroom,” Dr. Rozen said. “We have to learn to speak up.”

More photos of the Women in Science panel can be found on the Federation’s Facebook page.


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