International Women’s Day 2017: An invitation to my male colleagues in science in Canada

Editorial piece for the Canadian Science Policy Centre

March 8, 2017
By:
Imogen Coe
Dean
Ryerson Faculty of Science

The hit movie Hidden Figures celebrates the three African-American women mathematicians who helped NASA win the race to space in 1961. Much has been written about their achievements, but many commentators and the broader public appears to have missed the essential and necessary shift in culture and context, through changes in behaviour and attitudes of the white male co-workers, played by Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons in addition to white female boss, Kirsten Dunst. Attitudes and workplace culture must change to ensure accessibility and not everyone has the persistence of those Hidden Figures. The reality in Canada today is that we require a shift in the culture and practice of science and a full and meaningful engagement by men in science to ensure that women (and under-represented groups) can be full participants in science in this country. This IWD2017, I invite Canadian men in science to commit to promoting equity, diversity and inclusivity in STEM in support of Canadian women in science.

I have been asked by male colleagues whether EDI in STEM is really an issue in Canada in 2017 (or 2016 or 2006….or 1996). Yes, it is absolutely an issue, of national importance and economic development. Diversity drives innovation. When we exclude groups from human endeavours, we limit and constrain our inputs and outputs to the detriment of the ultimate product. I have given over 40 talks about EDI in STEM to students, academics, business people and the public in the last 18 months. After each talk, women share with me stories of exclusion (usually unintentional), marginalization (sometimes unconscious), and harassment (without consequences). I’ve heard from a graduate student who was told by male scientists that a panel discussion led by women was “just a bunch of vagina’s talking”; the professor who says he always hires girls in the lab because they work harder and he can pay them less; the student who was told by a professors that she was very good at math but would never be a mathematician; the brilliant postdoctoral fellow at one of Canada’s leading research institutes who had given up fighting the persistent harassment she experienced and was leaving science; the science student and elite athlete who began to doubt her abilities because she was asked, yet again, if she was “really sure she was a scientist because she sure didn’t look like one”; the talented student who was told by a professor that she wouldn’t last in the program so perhaps she should drop out, enrol in Arts and find a rich husband; the junior scientist who was told by a senior scientist in her division to mind her own business when she raised the issue of an invited all white male panel of speakers. Were comments like these to be replaced with comments about race or religion, we would expect there to be consequences (although sadly, we also know that often there are not). Workshops for women in STEM and science camps for girls, will not change participation rates of women and under-represented groups in STEM unless the culture and workplace also increase accessibility by removing systemic barriers and bringing in accountability and consequences.

How do we achieve EDI in STEM? Popular culture suggests we focus exclusively on girls although data in support of this approach are limited. Other studies support the efficacy of evidence-based policy changes that address organizational, institutional, structural and systemic barriers. We need data-driven approaches, using rigorous qualitative and quantitative data, which are informed by best (leading) practices in, for instance, the UK and Australia. Achieving institutional change can be difficult but financial motivations can be remarkably effective so linking funding to

effective EDI in STEM activities at both provincial and federal levels can be considered. Finally, legislation can be used, as has been the case in removing barriers for individuals with disabilities. We do not tell individuals who use wheelchairs to “try harder” when faced with a set of steps to a building. We remove the steps. We remove barriers to ensure accessibility. Systemic (and often invisible) barriers to EDI in STEM include (but are not limited to) hiring practices, resource allocations, process and policy institutionally, implicit biases, and benevolent sexism. Since universities typically fall under provincial mandate while funding for science typically falls under federal oversight, both levels of government need to take responsible for effecting and leading change, and indeed, diversity has been identified by the Minister of Science, the Honorable Kirsty Duncan as a priority for the federal government. Minister Duncan also described, at CSPC 2016, her own experience of exclusion and sexism as a woman in STEM in academia.

After my talks, I am sometimes asked by men what can they do as individuals? Useful resources can be found at my blog here. I encourage men to learn about EDI. Ask respectful questions of colleagues and then listen. Understand implicit bias (which we all have) and take bias into account in your activities. Scientists are not immune to bias and are not nearly as objective as they think they are. If you organize conferences, do it equitably. Learn about the gendered nature of language and take into account when writing letters of reference, when making recommendations or serving on committees. Learn to recognize the subtle ways in which sexism can inflict “death by a thousand cuts”. Be an ally to women in science. Call out male colleagues for sexist language. Hold yourself and your community accountable. Only 25% of science societies in Canada have statements that explicitly commit to EDI. If you are a leader, step up, speak out and commit to EDI in your society, department, division, institution or organization.

On this IWD2017, I invite men in Canadian science, at all levels, in all disciplines, to acknowledge the systemic challenges to women in STEM in Canada, to learn more about EDI, to act in ways that support EDI at the individual, institutional, organizational level. Diversity drives innovation and improves outcomes and quality of product. Science tells us this. As scientists, we should all listen and act accordingly.

This blog has been updated effective March 22nd, 2017 to reflect that observations from colleagues that consequences for offensive comments about race and religion do not lead to consequences anymore than offensive comments about gender.  This was not clear in the original article.