Making a Home for Women in Science and Engineering

Recently, Canadian-born Cambridge professor Nancy Lane toured Canada as part of the British High Commission's lecture series marking the 50th anniversary of the "double helix" discovery.

Lane spoke about the experiences of Rosalind Franklin, the woman scientist whose X-ray photos made it possible to crack the code of the DNA molecule's double helix. Franklin was barred from daily meetings with her male colleagues and described by one as "dreary, unfeminine and not very important." For many years, her contributions were not recognized.

Lane pointed out that while much has changed, women are still not well represented or appreciated in science and engineering. "Women can do science as well as men," she during a presentation at UBC in January. "They have the right to be given the opportunity. But there are barriers in place and we need to break those down."

The words resonated with Judith Myers, who served as Associate Dean for the Promotion of Women in Science at UBC from 1991 to 1999. "When you begin talking to people again, you realize that the problems are still there," she says. "Its better, but it isn't solved."

Across Canada, women represent approximately 30 per cent of university faculties, but the percentage is lower in the sciences, and especially in disciplines such as chemistry, physics and engineering. When Myers took her position, the Faculty of Science at UBC had nearly 300 faculty members, with just seven women. Today, the number is much higher. In Myers' own department, zoology, there are now 30 women in a faculty of 91. The Department of Mathematics went from one female faculty member to seven in the last five years. It's a significant improvement, but nowhere near the 50 per cent mark, despite the rapid growth of women in undergraduate science programs.

Suzanne Fortier, Academic Vice President at Queen's University, and the first women ever hired in the Queen's chemistry department, believes the root of the problem begins far beyond the university gates, and long before students choose their undergraduate programs. "One of the biggest issues is the culture of our society. Science and innovation are not well appreciated. As a result, there simply isn't enough participation across gender lines, and the problem is even more acute for women." Like many universities, Queen's is playing its part in changing the culture by sponsoring science and entrepreneurship programs for primary and high school students. For example, a group of applied science students who offer a summer camp make it their goal to fill at least 50 per cent of the slots with girls.

There's encouraging news at the undergraduate level, where more women are enrolling in science programs. At UBC, 60 per cent of biology students and 50 per cent of math and chemistry students are now women. Many go on to graduate work, but there is a significant drop-off at the PhD and faculty levels. Fortier says we don't know enough about the factors that may discourage women from moving into and completing doctoral programs, but it's something that needs further study.

At the hiring stage, Myers says it's crucial to have women on selection committees. "What you often hear is 'we're hiring the best person.' But who is the best person? Usually it's somebody like the people doing the hiring!" She points out that women tend to structure their academic careers differently from men, putting more effort into community service, teaching and outside activities, and often don't publish as much. This can work against them during the selection process. At UBC selection committees were directed to interview at least one woman, or to explain why they could not. But ultimately, Myers says much depends on the will of a department to hire women. "If there's a general feeling that they would like to have more women, a way will be found."

In recent years, academic positions have become more plentiful and many new PhDs are finding themselves courted by more than one institution. "Because we're all dealing with a small pool of candidates," says Fortier, "universities are competing against one another. If we 'win,' we see an increase in our female faculty numbers, but it's at the expense of another university."

Fortier and Myers both say that a key strategy for attracting women in science is to accommodate academic couples. "Not only does it bring in women," says Myers, "but couples are also much more likely to stay if they both have jobs." Fortier agrees: "I would say that the main reason we get turned down by a candidate is because her partner couldn't find a position in the Kingston area." Accommodating couples does more than increase the number of women faculty members, says Myers. It also changes the atmosphere. "Suddenly it's more acceptable for anyone, male or female, to leave early to pick up the kids at day care."

Queen's recently negotiated a Spousal Partner arrangement with its faculty association that offers an attractive package to academic couples. If one member of the couple is hired, the other member is immediately considered a candidate for any open position in his or her field. If a position is not open, the partner is offered a five-year non-renewable position with all the responsibilities of a tenure track position--teaching, research and community service. If a position becomes available during the five-year period, the partner is hired unless there is a candidate who is "demonstrably superior." "In the past, when people come in as partners, they often felt they were stuck in dead-end situations," says Fortier. "We've removed that dead-end situation by offering opportunities with the full range of academic activities."

Once a woman is hired in science or engineering, it's important, say Fortier and Myers, to ensure that she has a positive and supportive environment. Myers points out that departments most committed to increasing female participation also tend to be the most positive environments in which to work. "When there are only one or two women in a department, it's likely that the men don't see it as being important and the women will probably feel isolated." Fortier says she believes the "chilly climate" in some non-traditional fields has warmed considerably, in part because there are so many more women at all levels. She adds that her experience as the first women ever appointed to the chemistry department at Queen's never seemed chilly. "There were plenty of people who supported my advancement in the university."

She says that policies like parental leave, child care and accommodation of family obligations in the work load are essential. "Women in the natural sciences and engineering, as in every field nowadays, want to pursue a full career, both teaching and research, and want to know that we will provide them with an environment where they can be successful. You have to think very carefully about any part of the environment that might present a hurdle."

Mentorship, long recognized as a key strategy in retaining women in non-traditional areas, continues to be helpful but has become more informal. Fortier says that formal mentoring programs were more important when there were fewer women, and many found themselves alone in their own departments. "Now mentoring occurs more naturally--you don't need to go out of your way to create situations where women are able to share experiences or seek advice from other women." At UBC most departments assign mentors to all incoming new faculty.

Myers says the signs of change are all around. At UBC, the President and Vice-President Research are women. The Dean of Science, Maria Klawe, recently left to become Dean of Applied Sciences at Princeton University, where the President is also a woman. "There's no question there are some powerful women in universities today," she says. "But we still have some work to do to get equal representation in science and engineering."

This article appeared in the February 2003 issue of the Society of Canadian Women in Science and Technology ( SCWIST) newsletter and is reprinted with permission from the Senior Women Academic Administrators of Canada ( SWAAC)

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