Welcome and…Canada needs to talk about gender in science

To start things off at my new (and first!) blog, I wanted to share something I wrote earlier this year (just around the end of the last academic term).  When I first decided to go back to graduate school to study science and society, it was because of an interest in gender in science. It seemed fitting to start this blog there. And despite an obvious tie to events in the news at the time, the idea behind this post is continues to be relevant.

So here goes:

This week, students everywhere are finally breathing in the summer sun. Diploma exams are finished, university degrees are in hand and summer jobs have started. In the haze of a heat wave, most are probably not thinking about the state of science in Canada or what their place in Canada’s scientific future might be. Someone should be thinking about it though.

Despite massive changes in university enrolment over the past 20 years, few women are reaching the highest levels in mathematical sciences and engineering. At the University of Toronto, only 16% of PhDs in engineering from 2005-2007 were awarded to women. At the University of British Columbia, less than 20% of tenure track faculty in science are women. And as of the most recent academic term, only 13% of graduate students in mechanical engineering at the University of Alberta are women. On the opposite side of the coin, men are similarly absent from advanced study in, for example, speech pathology, nursing and occupational therapy. Despite the potential impact of gender underrepresentation on the progress of our national scientific economy and cultivation of our talented researchers, few in our government and media have been willing to address this issue.

In May, Industry Minister Tony Clement announced the names of nineteen top-tier science researchers recruited to Canadian universities through the new Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) program– a list that consisted entirely of men. To answer questions about gender bias in the process, the federal government at first expressed surprise that the competition yielded no female chairs. They then consulted an ad hoc panel of three women with senior experience in research or research funding for possible explanations.

Their report acknowledged that women were traditionally underrepresented in certain research fields and proposed five actions to prevent future imbalances. These were, however, primarily procedural and administrative fixes for the CERC program. There was scant address of why there might be a dearth of women in those fields and why a program like the CERC might systematically miss them. The report instead proposed an open category for researchers outside the target areas and an award stream for rising stars. And that is where the discussion ended.

This response exhibits none of the vigour evident in debates south of our border. Currently, American legislators are considering a proposal requiring action to enhance gender equity in recipients of federal research and career grants. In response, New York Times writer John Tierney recently began a controversial series of columns with the title “Daring to discuss women in science” arguing against the rush for institutional causes and solutions. He provocatively (and to many, controversially) emphasized biological explanations for gender gaps in science career achievement. It has spurred a heated and active public debate amongst the media, government and university agents that highlights the deep divides that exist in research communities over the causes for gender discrepancies in mathematics and sciences.

Where, however, is our national discussion of this issue? Where are the provocative comments that can begin a national debate that reflects what a complex and difficult issue this is? For when we are silent, how can solutions be found? The assumptions underlying approach that relies on minor administrative fixes also remain unexamined.

In contrast to the public treatment of these gender issues, recent concerns about Canada’s place in the digital economy 1) were raised in the throne speech; 2) have resulted in a government discussion document for public review; and 3) led to a wide call by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for research-based policy recommendations aiming to address the matter. These actions have not been mirrored in response to concerns about gender issues in science.

Even without government policy intervention, like that in the United States, the act of discussion itself is important. I recently contributed to a large study of undergraduate students in American universities, asking them what factors influenced their motivation and persistence in science and physics in particular.

We found that female students who had experienced explicit discussion of underrepresentation in their high school classes indentified more strongly with continuing studies and future careers in physics. If this dialog on women and science is absent from our national discourse, what possible expectation can there be that it will happen regularly in classrooms across the country?

The CERC report put the issue of women in science at the centre of public conversation for a brief moment. But, the media and the public needs to go further. We need to ask questions of ourselves as citizens and of our researchers. We, as a country, need to dare to talk about genderand other social issues in science. Otherwise, we will continue to watch our talented students drop out of the science career path, and the end of school rituals of each passing year will serve as constant reminders of a complacent, uncurious nation, one that chose not to examine the full talent and potential of its youth.

Looking back at this, the CERC controversy seems long past but my feelings towards the public reaction to it haven’t changed. There is actually a strong message in both the lack of public conversation and in the report’s suggestions that finding women means just looking elsewhere. The message is that searching the world for the best sceintists and coming up with no women is totally normal and natural. No one was surprised that there aren’t sociologists on the CERC list because the program wasn’t looking for sociologists. Their absense is rightfully normal (in that it is expected) and natural (in that there is a perfectly reasonable underying explanation – they’re not scientists). Finding no women on the CERC list might well be normal but is it natural and, if so, what does that mean?

Without discussion and serious public questioning, everyone is left to decide what that means on their own. Those who already believe that women are naturally less talented in the physical science leave their assumptions intact. Girls who might be starting to believe that women aren’t welcome is top level science leave their assumptions intact. Those who believe that science is simply meritocratic – rewarding only the diligent hard work of anyone who is interested – leave their assumptions intact. To me, that’s the problem here – not talking about it reinforces that it is not only normal but natural, something that leads to a troubling reinforcement of assumptions both about gender and about science. That it has blown over so quickly only makes my concerns stronger.

I must thank my friend Ben Young Landis (currently of the USGS Western Ecological Research Center, @younglandis on Twitter) for his help editing the original piece. Ben, your suggestions made this piece so much clearer and more engaging. Thanks!

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