Ève Gilroy, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Burlington, ON, Natalie Feisthauer, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Guelph, ON, Katie Hill, Health Canada, Ottawa, ON, Yamini Gopalapillai, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Burlington, ON, and Oana Birceanu, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, ON

In celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, on February 21, 2018, Laurentian SETAC’s Diversity in Science Committee (DISC) organized a successful and meaningful event: “We Are Here: Constructive Actions towards Achieving Equity in Science”.

The event was designed as a panel discussion moderated by Dr. Yamini Gopalapillai, post-doctoral fellow at Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Three panelists were invited to share with us their experience and insight into Equity in Science:

  • Alison Fraser, Project Director and Risk Assessment Specialist at Shared Value Solutions, Guelph, ON
  • Allison McDonald, Associate Professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, ON
  • Natalie Feisthauer, Soil and Nutrient Management Specialist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Guelph, ON

 

An overview of the DISC’s creation and achievements was presented by Dr. Ève Gilroy, Research Scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada. The DISC was created in 2016, with the initial goal of examining L-SETAC’s own practices regarding gender equity. The committee is evolving to promote awareness of the barriers faced by not just women, but also by members of under-represented groups in science, and to find solutions to address and, hopefully, remove such barriers. Dr. Gilroy also provided concluding remarks that summarized the perceptive and deeply personal contributions of the panelists.

Barriers to Equity

Dr. Gopalapillai started the panel with a presentation of a list of Barriers to Equity identified a priori by the Diversity in Science Committee’s Katie Hill, Scientific Evaluator at Health Canada. Each panelist shared their personal experience pertaining to a few of these barriers (Fig. 1), which have been identified as contributors to the loss and under-representation of women in STEM careers. A summary of the evening’s thought-provoking and stimulating discussion is provided below.

Lack of support: Dr. Allison McDonald candidly shared her experience after making the conscious decision to start her family, while completing her PhD about fifteen years ago. Notwithstanding the misguided comments (“Was that an accident?”, “It’s a career killer!”), Allison shared her dismay upon learning that employment insurance would not cover her parental leave, unless her advisor had funding from National Science and Engineering Council (NSERC). Moreover, she was contacted by OSAP while on maternity leave, as she was officially no longer studying, and was required to start paying her loans. For her second parental leave, in addition to pursuing her PhD and growing a little human, she worked at a call centre prior to going on parental leave, to ensure she would qualify for EI. Her experience is an example of the systemic problems surrounding issues encountered by women who are interested in pursuing a career AND having children, which creates a barrier for women who wish to pursue scientific careers.

Work-life balance: Alison Fraser shared that after returning to work after the birth of her third child, she negotiated with her employer for a four-day work week, so that she could achieve a work-life balance. Fortunately, her employer recognized the value of retaining qualified employees.

Gender bias in employer’s expectations: Natalie Feisthauer discussed the systemic societal bias that values a person’s time, not only by gender, but by their status in life, and that all persons’ time should be considered valuable whether or not that person is married, does or does not have children, or other family care-giver obligations. She agreed with Dr. MacDonald’s statement that science can be conducted in a way that supports a work-life balance for all (“good science can be done 9 -5”).

Unconscious bias: Natalie Feisthauer brought attention to the unconscious bias that is a part of every aspect of the barriers that women in science face (e.g., confidence gap, hiring bias, etc.). An increasing body of data is demonstrating that from an early age we receive pervasive messaging that men are more ‘natural’ scientists and leaders, that men “do” science better than women. As a result, one develops an unconscious bias, in both men and women, that supports and perpetuates this belief and gives rise to the barriers listed in Fig 1. Natalie challenged attendees, including herself, to check for their unconscious bias and if you find you have them, actively work towards addressing them.  After all, if you don’t recognize there is a problem, you can’t fix it.

Fig. 1: Barriers to Equity. From: NAP, 2006; AAUM, 2010.

Other barriers discussed by the panellists:

Confidence gap: in the private sector as well as in academia, where employees have more opportunity to negotiate their salary, women are less likely to do a good sales job due to a systemic confidence gap. This phenomenon is underpinned by societal values.

Emotional burden: often women are selected for committees or additional tasks, to mentor students or junior colleagues that men don’t feel the need to participate in. These extra activities are not seen as real work, yet many women feel obligated to participate but get little to no benefit for it, while men have more time to advance their career.

Leaky pipeline: “It is a fire hose that sprays women everywhere” – many women don’t feel supported and are forced to make choices that men don’t have to make.

Solutions to These Barriers

After discussing barriers to equity, the panel and attendees eagerly discussed potential solutions to these barriers. Highlights include:

Mentors – Be the mentor at any stage in your career, at the beginning, middle and when in a senior position. Promote and support all young scientists and “walk the talk”: where there are barriers to women in your workplace work to reduce them.   A small example: if, in a meeting you notice that someone, especially a woman early in her career, is quiet and not speaking, or is being interrupted or disregarded, draw her out in a supportive manner; this will allow her to meaningfully contribute and demonstrates to all at the meeting that she has an opinion of value. This is leading by example and works towards addressing others’ unconscious biases.

Change the metrics to foster equity – be more holistic in defining success, ensuring a diverse hiring committee, design flexibility and openness in hiring/career progression assessments. We had a lively discussion about quotas promoting gender equity in science. Examples were provided on successful initiatives in the EU to increase gender equity; and those most successful “followed the money” – funding of academic institutions was directly tied to meeting clear performance metrics around gender equity (e.g., transparency in hiring practices, have a clear system to address identified biases, etc.). At the end of the discussion all agreed that quotas without support was not enough – see article on Without inclusion, diversity initiatives may not be enough.

Additional snapshots of the [many] solutions to these barriers

  • Find mentors – they come in any shape, form, colour or identity. (also, don’t feel badly for “taking their time”; they are learning a lot from you as well).
  • Identify your own unconscious gender bias (see Implicit Association Test). If you don’t see a problem, you can’t fix it.
  • Be that example. Each one of us can make a difference
  • Start with your children or mentees
  • (Re)define success – perhaps by being more holistic
  • Change the metrics to foster equity – ensuring a diverse hiring committee, flexibility
  • Ask about diversity and inclusion statements
  • Never take yourself out of the running. There will be plenty of other people to tell you no.
  • Recognize imposter syndrome, which many of us deal with. Remind yourself of your strengths and achievements.

An Inclusive Event

One of the goals of the event was to start a constructive dialogue on gender inequity in science. Research has shown that the voice of the majority often carries more weight than under-represented groups (as demonstrated by Wilfrid Laurier’s Eden Hennessey, guest speaker at our first International Day of Women and Girls in Science event February 8 2017). Therefore, the Diversity in Science Committee made the effort to invite male scientists to this year’s event. Sixty-six members, non-members and friends of Laurentian SETAC answered our invitation to talk Equity, nearly a third of which were male. Success. It was heartwarming to observe that the invitation was answered with support and interest. The event extended into the evening as much as room booking permitted it, and fostered further interactive discussions, some of which carried on into the subsequent days and weeks.

Bridging the Gap

The theme of the 2018 International Women’s Day is #PressForProgress. The DISC concluded the evening by challenging the attendees to take action towards Equity (https://www.internationalwomensday.com/PressforProgress):

  • Maintaining a gender parity mindset
  • Challenge stereotypes and bias
  • Forge positive visibility of women
  • Influence others’ beliefs/actions
  • Celebrate women’s achievements

The DISC is proud to comment that since its creation in 2016, it has contributed to several of these important actions towards Gender Equity. We look forward to further contributing to change.

References and Resources:

 

Learn about Diversity and Inclusiveness http://ccdi.ca/
Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI) is a national Canadian organization that provides you with a series of learning resources, such as research, articles, toolkits and webinars.  They also provide resources to create a more inclusive workplace including tips to reduce your unconscious bias.