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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 1999

Working for More Women in Science

Jennifer Mather

Conference session examines equity & women in science.

Concerned with the continuing under-representation of women in science, The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council struck a Task Force on Women in Science in Engineering, chaired by Dr. Monique Frize, in 1994. Their report, released in 1996, made a series of recommendations which were reported on in the June 1997 edition of the Bulletin. CAUT's Status of Women Committee held a seminar discussion at its 1998 Regina conference to review how the recommendations were being carried out and what remained to be done to assure equity for women in Canadian science.

It is now widely recognized that women were and still remain badly under-represented in the sciences and that this represents a loss of valuable expertise and human resources. The problem includes numerical representation in that women are not in the scientific workforce and influential representation so that even when present they are under-recognized and in subordinate positions.

Dr. Elizabeth Cannon, NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering, Prairie Region, reported that many of the recommendations of the task force have been or are being carried out. To speed recognition of the problems, in 1997 NSERC appointed chairs of women in science and engineering across the regions of Canada, with a mandate to spend half of their time gathering information, publicizing and networking.

In addition, the women's faculty appointment program, which assists in the financing of women in beginning tenure-track positions in the sciences and engineering, has been reinstated as of September, 1998.

To expand women's opportunities within the sciences, NSERC has announced an attempt to place two women on each of its committees, and has also recognized the necessity to recruit 'young' scientists for these committees and acknowledge the time demand involved in this service.

NSERC is also recognizing the general role of women for family maintenance, and has relaxed the mobility requirement for post-doctoral fellowships as well as looking into allowance for maternity leave during scholarships and fellowships. They also allow a grant-holder nursing mothers to be reimbursed for child care during a conference.

Women are moving into the sciences, but at every level they find the social surroundings (often called the Chilly Climate) unhelpful to their success. One aspect of this is the continuing assumption that women hold responsibility for family, and cannot pair this commitment with a scientific career with its absolute dedication and more-than-full-time commitment. Given this extra workload, women drop out or burn out.

Besides noting the progress, there was a sense that demographics do not tell the whole story of women scientists. Two aspects of demographics are particularly worrisome, the continuing minimal representation of women in computers science and the apparent ceiling of 20% of females in the 'female-friendly' biological and agricultural sciences.

It was suggested that the problem has shifted from one of exclusionary policy to exclusionary climate.

NSERC's recommendations on family issues will help this, but social assumptions must also change. For instance, couples sharing an appointment and a research programme represent a good investment in science but are often overlooked by university departments. A second difficulty is that the implicit values held by science -- for competition, objectivity and dedication to work -- are opposite of the values that women in our society are socialized to hold. One part of the mismatch between themselves and their aims and the science culture they face is topics or approaches that are unattractive to women, including those fostered by the alliance of science with industry. This male centered view of work commitment and appropriateness is still in place during peer evaluation, and is at least partly responsible for women's minor share in science.

The seminar group concluded that NSERC's recommendations, which are beginning to be carried out, will help in this effort. However, there was a sense that the present shortage of funding and positions will increase the competition and harden attitudes, perhaps making it difficult for the exclusionary practices to be recognized and eliminated.

Jennifer Mather is a member of CAUT's Status of Women Committee.

Conference presentations were made by Dr. Jennifer Mather, Dr. Elizabeth Cannon (Calgary) and Dr. Swani Vethamany-Globus (Waterloo).