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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 1997

NSERC Aims to Enhance Image of Women

Jennifer A. Mather

Women in Science and Engineering

Women have played a small part in the sciences in Canada, a fact which NSERC ultimately recognized as a problem that warranted examining "the various ways in which the agency could enhance the participation of women in its programs."

NSERC’s first step was to establish a Task Force on Women in Science and Engineering, which produced a report in June of 1996. The task force comprised 10 individuals from graduate students to a university president and from zoology to engineering, with Dr. Paula Caplan as advisor.

The task force first reviewed what combination of factors acting on women in science in Canada caused the number of women in faculty positions to be small and their visibility low. They recognized the continuing uneven representation of men and women students in the physical sciences and engineering despite an improvement over time and the contrasting equal representation in the natural sciences.

They noted that recent enrolment increases for women "may have reached a plateau and it is even possible that enrolments will start to fall again." They also noted that "a supportive environment is probably the most important aspect of attracting and retaining women as graduate students and faculty members."

Looking into the participation of women in programs supported by NSERC, the task force found that women constituted about 10 per cent of individual grant holders, seven per cent of members of collaborative grant programs and only four per cent of individuals participating in Centers of Excellence.

They noted the participation of women in Industrial Research Chairs was essentially zero, which led to the ironic comment that the Women’s Faculty Awards are "often referred to as ‘side-stream funding’ for women," without anyone noticing that systemic discrimination leads to the Industrial Research Chairs actually being "‘side-stream funding’ for men."

Given these data the task force recommended 21 actions they felt would help change the under-representation of women in science. These tend to be situation-specific and can be reported in six groups.

The first action recommended reinstatement of the just-cancelled Women Faculty Awards program. Data available for the duration of this award showed that in what can be described as difficult academic times, the program had succeeded in bringing women into faculty positions.

The example of Dalhousie University was cited — of the five women hired into the sciences in the last five years, all were in the faculty award program. NSERC is currently evaluating this recommendation, and it is hoped they will then reinstate the program.

A group of actions recommended by the task force would open a window of opportunity for women researchers who often find themselves faced with major family responsibilities at the beginning of their scientific career.

NSERC has accepted the recommendation that mobility not be considered an important criterion in the awarding of postdoctoral fellowships.

The task force suggested widening the eligibility "windows" in terms of time after PhD and duration of postdoctoral programs. NSERC has agreed in principle and has explicitly noted in guidelines that the time may be longer if it includes leave for child bearing and rearing.

The third recommendation in this group — that NSERC grants cover expenses for childcare during conference attendance — will also be studied. This would remove a roadblock that prevents some women with infants from attending conferences at an early stage in their career where visibility is vital. NSERC has agreed to this expenditure but only for nursing mothers.

Another pair of recommendations asked, in essence, that NSERC ensure fair and equitable assessment of men and women's capabilities and contributions be done especially in collaborative work. The task force pointed out that gendered stereotypes of academic excellence discriminate against behaviours found more often in women. NSERC has accepted recommendations to help begin this process.

The proportional membership of women on NSERC committees has recently been 11 per cent. While the task force reported that this is representative of the proportion of women in science faculties, they recognized the minority situation as a problem. One way to mitigate this isolation is their recommendation to ensure two women are appointed to each committee. NSERC has accomplished this for over half of its committees for 1996-1997.

The task force reviewed the use of undergraduate scholarships as a way to facilitate the movement of women into the sciences. They felt that the former Undergraduate Student Research Awards program for summer work had been an excellent encouragement for women wanting to take up a career in science and recommended reinstatement of special scholarships for female undergraduate students at second or third year.

NSERC has decided not to follow this recommendation yet, although it may "encourage the universities participating in the Undergraduate Student Research Awards program to direct at least 50 per cent of their awards to female students when possible."

The task force recognized that women currently working in the sciences have had a problem with visibility and even where there are women in faculty and administrative positions their significant accomplishments are often unrecognized.

One recommendation of the task force in the visibility area that has just been undertaken by NSERC was to expand the program of senior appointments for women in Canadian science. From the single Chair on Women in Engineering, five chairs have now been established (by the matching of private sector cash contributions) in areas of application rather than basic science.

This was recommended by the task force to ensure the overwhelming male identity of the Industrial Research Chair program is somewhat modified.

A second visibility recommendation of the task force is that visiting professorships for women faculty be instituted. Visiting professorships would benefit the career advancement of women receiving such visiting professorships and have a positive impact on the host institutions, which were often selected because of their lack of women faculty in the area.

The task force suggested that these visitors could come from industry as well as the university system. NSERC is studying this recommendation.

A final recommendation in this group was to search out and publicize under-reported women researchers. NSERC could profile researchers in its publications and on the Internet and inform on activities and programs to increase the proportion of women in science and compile lists of women for hiring purposes. NSERC is compiling information on women researchers and is planning to feature them on its Web site.

Finally, the task force had a whole page of recommendations for Conditions in the Universities to Foster a Greater Participation of Women. They felt that "NSERC can have an important influence on the establishment of a supportive climate in our universities."

Jennifer A. Mather is with the Department of Psychology at the University of Lethbridge and is a member of CAUT’s Status of Women Committee.