Time for a National Strategy on Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity in STEM in Canada

We need a national strategy regarding EDI in STEM in Canada and we need it now. We need it now, not because it’s 2015, 2016, 2017…….how many years do we have to wait…..we need it now because we face, nationally and globally, wicked and complex problems and because diversity is a driver of creativity and innovation.  If we are to solve or even address the complex problems that we face, we need all hands on deck, we need everyone at the table, we need to leverage all the human potential and intellectual capacity that is available to us.  Barriers to full inclusion in STEM mean that we are missing out on potential, missing out on ideas, perspectives, attitudes.  We cannot afford to miss out on brain power.  EDI in STEM is an economic imperative.  If we want to maintain our prosperity and our standard of living, Canada needs to address the lack of diversity and particularly, the low retention and recruitment rates for women and under-represented groups in STEM.

This blog post pulls together a lot of information that I present in talks and panels.  I am asked for resources and information and I hope that some of the information here will be helpful. I have spent many years working to advance and promote EDI in STEM and have acquired a wealth of analysis, evaluation and focus on best practices elsewhere (http://www.cdnsciencepub.com/blog/women-in-science-dr-imogen-coe.aspx).  I believe in evidence-based approaches to advancing EDI in STEM – although the essential nature of data-driven, evidence-based policy change does not seem to have become well established at any level of STEM in Canada – from federal to local.  This has to change.

There is a lot of focus on the retention rates of women in STEM.  We need to move away from focusing on women as being part of the “problem” and need to honestly and openly address the systemic and persistent barriers that limit full EDI.  As I have said time and time again, the issue of equity in science is not a “women’s issue” – it is a human rights.  Men need to have opportunities (and encouragement) to take time with their families and be encouraged to do those things that women have long been marginalized and penalized for – having and raising families.  I have spent as much time as a Chair or Dean supporting young fathers as I have supporting young mothers in science – and again, ensuring that older faculty dealing with aging parents or troubled teenagers are also supported in their scientific careers.  We need to make science a humane place for everyone – which is why one of the guiding principles for the new Faculty of Science at Ryerson is “Humanity in Science.”  It is this type of holistic approach will bring equity and inclusivity – and ultimately diversity.

Ensuring that science is accessible to all does not preclude other initiatives as long as they are evidence-based in terms of efficacy.  Programs and initiatives that provide special awards for career breaks (different pathways, etc.) are needed but they cannot exist in a vacuum that does not address the larger issues and invisible barriers.  The well-known NSERC-supported UFA awards for women were discontinued when data suggested that they were not effective in increasing retention of women in science.  This is inevitable for any group-specific program that fails to address cultural barriers and systemic bias in the environment that exists for that group in STEM.  In the UK, the Daphne Jackson awards appear to be helping science understand that there are many different types of pathways to a career in academic science.  Programs such as the Daphne Jackson awards, when combined with an AthenaSWAN-like program, which addresses institutional systemic barriers and biases, bring both targeted and systemic approaches to achieve real impact. Perhaps it might be time to re-investigate the benefits of a UFA-type program in support of EDI in STEM in combination with other broader and institutional-level initiatives.  The AthenaSWAN program seeks to address challenges that have long been recognized in the UK regarding diversity and STEM (e.g. http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2012/may/24/why-women-leave-academia?CMP=share_btn_tw) including culture and institutional barriers (e.g., in chemistry http://www.biochemistry.org/Portals/0/SciencePolicy/Docs/Chemistry%20Report%20For%20Web.pdf). Some of the UK’s leading research universities have signed on to the Athena SWAN Charter and it is considered prestigious to receive an award and the program has been expanded to more disciplines. One of the most impressive recipients of repeated Gold AthenaSWAN awards is the Department of Chemistry at the University of York.

The Canadian version could be the Maud Menten awards or Harriet Brooks or Alice Wilson awards.

I have learned a lot about how effective the AthenaSWAN and Daphne Jackson programs have been in the UK through my colleague and friend Dr. Hilary Lappin-Scott, Swansea Univ., UK.  Hilary is a Trustee on the Daphne Jackson program, which, she tells me, “is working well but only considers one small part of what is needed to drive up equality and diversity.”  I was very fortunate to be in London in November 2016 as Hilary’s guest when she received a WISECampaignUK award for her work in promoting EDI in STEM nationally and internationally.

The AthenaSWAN program has also been rolled out to Australia where it is known as SAGE. Australia was the first location for the program outside of the UK and Ireland and I am grateful to Dr. Mel Thomson, a major advocate in support of SAGE, provided some insights into how to get the program off the ground when she visited Toronto in November 2015.

David Ruebain (chief executive of the Equality Challenge Unit that houses Athena SWAN) said that his team “gets asked to go and talk about the charter all over the world”, although in most cases it is unable to send staff because the focus remains on delivering the scheme in the UK (quoted in (https://www.timeshighereducation.com/athena-swan-set-to-spread-wings-and-head-down-under) and within this article there is comment that Canada is one of the countries requesting more information.

The power of the Athena SWAN and the SAGE programs are that they hold the institution and the institutional culture and context responsible for equity, diversity and inclusivity – and this is a strongly evidence-based approach that has been shown to work more effectively than programs that focus exclusively on girls or women and try to make them “fit” into a model that refuses to address structural, systemic, persistent and cultural barriers to inclusion and equity.

Any programming must be evidence based and my observation over the last many years is that there is a striking lack of attention to evidence and data informing policy when it comes to EDI in STEM in Canada.  Many people think or assume they know what works – more science camps for girls, workshops for women and similar.  I have recommended many times that anyone genuinely interested in truly effecting positive change in STEM take a look at “Through both eyes: the case for a gender lens in STEM.” This excellent report provides insights in to STEM education and career development and, importantly, |identifies who is responsible for effecting change at which levels (government, education, institutional, media, parents, teachers….etc. etc.). Particularly powerful to me is recommendation #8 from the executive summary

“Initiatives that seek to ‘encourage’ girls into STEM are misplaced. The implication is that girls must change. Instead, we believe the responsibility for closing the STEM gender gap should be placed on the people who have influence in our society and education system. Girls are treated differently in the classroom and careers advice is far from actively inclusive. This separation of girls and young women from the mainstream is the fundamental roadblock.”

We do not need more programs that identify women as being the issue that needs to be fixed.  Girls and young women do not need to be “encouraged to stay in STEM”.  STEM – in all its forms –needs to work to stop pushing girls and young women out.  All children are born natural scientists, girls become disenfranchised – and quite frankly exhausted, by continually having to challenge cultural conditioning and gender stereotypes.  My work and that of others, with young women in science (in most English-speaking countries) provides clear evidence that the context must become more inclusive rather than have the girls continually “overcome” barriers.  This is another reason why role models are so much weaker in terms of impact than are champions (particularly engaged and supportive fathers).  Everyone can be a champion.

Science must acknowledgement and accept that there are systemic barriers to inclusivity – just as we have finally begun to acknowledge that there is systemic racism and discrimination that affect accessibility (take for example, the recent report of differential assessment of CVs with  “white” names compared to “black” names).

In 2015, following the Ask Alice debacle in Science Careers, I wrote a letter to AAAS that was shared around the world by social media and which was subsequently used in a revised response in Science describing appropriate advice for young women in science – notably quite different from that initially provided by Dr. Alice Huang.  Subsequently, I was (the only Canadian) interviewed by the Washington Post

Even before the #DontAskAlice incident last year and certainly since that event, I have written and spoken extensively on the state of women in science in Canada (e.g.http://www.paneuropeannetworks.com/special-reports/science-returns-to-centre-stage-in-canada/; http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/dr-imogen-coe/gender-stereotyping-stem_b_7423048.html).  I am increasingly asked to speak as both a Canadian scientist and academic leader in the field of equity, diversity and inclusivity (EDI) in STEM and also as a woman advocating for change for women in many fields.  I speak to high school students and teachers, as well as to tech companies and networking women-in-business groups about everything from the barriers to inclusivity that exist because of cultural conditioning (which disenfranchises boys as much as girls), to the effects of the collapse of self-confidence in girls in their STEM abilities as they progress through high school and into university and/or careers to the insidious effects of things like imposter syndrome.  These are the real barriers that women and under-represented groups face and these are the things that need to be addressed by programs that are built on data, evidence, experience and insight.  I have given over 30 talks and presentations in the last 12 months and have many more speaking requests to look forward to.  I n all of them, I highlight the need for a national strategy in Canada on EDI in STEM – as is the case for our OECD and G20 comparators.

The time is now.  A colleague (female) scientist at a major institution in Canada received this email from a senior scientist when she called into question a panel of speakers who were all white mid-career males for a local conference which was organized by graduate students and sponsored by a major science organization.  That major science organization has a very clear equity policy in terms of what a panel of speakers should seek to reflect and had provided funding in support of the conference.  His response to her query regarding this apparent breech of conference policy (and basic common sense in my opinion) was as follows:

“……. Affirmative action is contrary to the purity of excellence in science. Well-meaning (but often misguided) social engineering driven by political correctness has no place in the selection of speakers to conferences.  Unless you have reason to believe that willful discrimination has taken place, I suggest you keep your personal views to yourself ”

This attitude is deeply regrettable and mis-informed but not uncommon.  Were the playing-field level, and were there no more barriers to full access and inclusion – then he would be correct that it would be wrong to elevate some indididuals on the basis of gender or colour or ethnicity or ability.  But the assumption that the playing field is level and that the system if equitable is wrong.  Evidence and data will support this and as a scientist – he should know this.  Here-in lies the danger of woman-only research chairs because “affirmative action is contrary to scientific excellence” and thus these women will be inevitable stigamatized unless there is a concomittant requirement for institutions to address systemic bias and barriers. I look forward to the day when this individual has to shift his attitude (or keep his opinions to himself) as the institution embraces a program that says it is taking EDI seriously and here are the consequences for those who do not engage integrating EDI into everything.  The actionable approaches can be things as simple as mandatory implicit bias training for hiring committees and grant review committees.  For more ways to shift institutional or divisional culture, look to the Department of Chemistry at the University of York in the UK.  This department is an AthenaSWAN Gold Award winner for it’s promotion and implementation of EDI principles under the leadership for Dr. Paul Walton.

It is important to note that men and male scientists are key to effecting real change and achieving EDI in STEM in Canada.  There are many terrific male scientists in Canada who see the value in normalizing science as a place where everyone can take a break to have kids, where implicit bias training is the norm for both hiring committees and granting committees and who would scoff at the comment above.  I want to single out Dr. Bryan Gaensler and Dr. Jeremy Kerr as being allies who support EDI without question through their own leadership in academic science. Beyond individuals, all of us should expect national organizations such as NSERC, CIHR and the Royal Society to lead policy development and action on EDI.  The federal/provincial distinction in terms of who has oversight over universities means that provinces must be involved in developing policy to advance EDI in academic science.  Cutting across the provincial/federal boundary are the Canadian science societies who should be taking a lead on EDI in their own societies – as representatives of all their members.  Canadian science societies have been slow to act on issues related to diversity – as a collective rather than an ad hoc, “women’s issue” or similar.  Many young scientists, male and female, have a more progressive view of inclusivity and gender issues – than their older colleagues and I have been heartened by the number of young men who have asked me what they can do to help advance EDI.  Leveraging the potential in all of our young scientists can bring prestige for institutions in gaining recognition for being progressive and inclusive.

The great American educator and advocate for girls in science, Myra Sadker, once said, “If the cure for cancer is in the mind of a girl, we might never find it”.  This remains true and if a solution for the challenges faced by the arctic by climate change sits in the mind of a aboriginal student, we will certainly not find it – unless we fully embrace EDI in STEM in Canada.  And we do it now.