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CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 2016

Unmasking sexism in science

Wilfrid Laurier University PhD candidate Eden Hennessey created the #DistractinglySexist photo exhibit to highlight how women are confronting sexism in science & tech professions. [Hilary Gauld]
Wilfrid Laurier University PhD candidate Eden Hennessey created the #DistractinglySexist photo exhibit to highlight how women are confronting sexism in science & tech professions. [Hilary Gauld]
The principle of objectivity is supposed to guide the scientific world. Remove personal biases, emotional involvement and other interests, and society will succeed in finding the truths of the natural world.

But in the very academic disciplines where this value dominates — science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM fields) — one disturbing bias remains. Sexism in STEM still prevails.

At the undergraduate level, women’s enrolments have increased, but at the academic staff and administrative levels women remain vastly underrepresented.

“The reality is these fields remain far from objective,” said Nola Etkin, a chemistry professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, who also serves on CAUT’s equity committee.

“From the hiring process to the everyday culture, for the most part there still exists a macho, male meritocracy.”

This gender gap has been called the “leaky pipeline” in reference to how large numbers of women leave STEM fields at various stages of their careers.

The gender disparity among the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) awards paints a stark picture about the lack of recognition women receive.

For example, of 130 new Canada Research Chairs awarded in February 2016, only 22 went to women.

Since 1991, NSERC’s Herzberg Medal has been awarded annually for sustained excellence and overall influence of research work in natural sciences or engineering. Victoria Kaspi, the 2016 recipient, is the first woman to receive the prize.

There have been only two female recipients for NSERC’s John C. Polanyi Award since its inception in 2006.

Of the 25 current Canada Excellence Research Chairs, only two are female. In 2010 when the CERC holders were first announced, none were awarded to women.

Etkin says there are many things that make the culture unwelcoming to women — from the “nebulous and highly subjective ‘fit’ criteria found in most hiring processes” to the lack of encouragement for women to apply for promotion or awards.

More and more, women are blowing the whistle on the sexist culture in science, and some are getting creative.

Last year, when Nobel laureate Tim Hunt lamented that female scientists in labs caused problems because they allegedly “distracted” male scientists, he sparked international outrage prompting a #distractinglysexy social media storm. Hunt subsequently resigned from his post at University College London.

Wilfrid Laurier University PhD candidate Eden Hennessey was inspired to create a #Distractingly-Sexist photo exhibit that highlights how women are confronting sexism in science and tech professions.

“Challenging sexism and notions that STEM careers are masculine can be tricky for women because they can face social costs for speaking out,” Hennessey said. “They can be met with hostility and it can affect whether they continue careers in these fields.”

Speaking out could also contribute to the leaky pipeline. When women blow the whistle on sexism, Hennessey said they risk facing exclusion from professional networks, and may be subject to public derision, harassment and individual blame.

She said her exhibit intends to reverse the shaming of women scientists who confront sexism and celebrate instead the work of whistleblowers in the field.

“It is hard to get out of these molds,” Etkin said, reflecting on the syste­mic challenges. “But I now appreciate how important it is to speak up.”

Etkin works with the Chemical Institute of Canada’s Women in Chemistry and Friends Group to encourage university and college department heads to nominate more wo­men for research awards and to increase the representation of women in top science positions.

Etkin noted that it was important for women and other marginalized groups to seek administrative positions and to support others to also step up to positions, “because that is the way changes can be made.”

She said she’s already noticed a change in her own faculty since a woman was appointed dean that is “making a difference to my own self-esteem and to what I ask her for.”

Women who are also members of other marginalized groups face even bigger challenges when seeking a comfortable and safe place in science.

As a lesbian, Etkin said she was afraid to come out in graduate school, especially as not only did her supervisor treat women differently, but she’d heard he was homophobic.

“There are many subtle ways that being a minority can affect your career, making everything even more difficult,” Etkin said. “Sometimes when things happen you don’t know if it’s because you are a lesbian or a woman. It takes a lot of energy to be different.”

But now that Etkin is a tenured professor, she said she’s found it necessary to be vocal in seeking ways to change the biased culture persisting in science.

“As a scientist, part of my role is educating people beyond just chemistry, including equity as well,” said Etkin, who is organizing a panel on equity and diversity in chemistry at this year’s Canadian Chemistry Conference.

NSERC has introduced some initiatives to advance women in science and engineering professions, such as the regional Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering Program.

But Etkin says key programs were cut at NSERC, such as the University Faculty Awards designed to address the underrepresentation of women and Aboriginal peoples in faculty positions in the natural sciences and engineering.

“The program needs to be reinstated,” she insists.

Increasing equity in STEM fields is the only way to shift the culture both at the structural and at the everyday level to support women in the disciplines, according to Etkin.

“Look at your department,” she said. “Look at who is there. Look at how people are treated and do what you can to support each other.”