Thursday, March 12, 2009

Women need your support... here's why

This week, Dr. Suzanne Fortier, President of NSERC, spoke to an audience of male/female students and faculty about women in science and engineering. The talk was organized by WISE Ottawa and I would like to summarize and expand on what I've learned.

Why don't women get nominated for the very prominent awards?

Suzanne talked about scholarships and the number of women receiving them. She found that women are not nominated enough for the more prominent scholarships like the Accelerators or the Herzberg. I got the impression that Universities are the nominators, so that's one possible source that could be looked into, but the main cause is much more difficult to deal with. Here goes...

A typical schedule of a prominent researcher

Suzanne described the schedule of a very prominent man, a highly cited author in his field (no name given). He wakes up at 3am to write grants/papers, goes for a run at 6:30am, and gets to the lab at 7:30am. Most evenings he spends at business dinners and meetings, and the rest of the evenings he goes home to spend time with his family. On weekends he sleeps in until 4:30am. So what is the conclusion? Well who's with the kids? What woman can follow this kind of schedule? Women can't compete if these are the requirements to get those top scholarships/award/grants... unless they have no families. Very few women would accept that.

Could this be why there are few women in industry and faculty positions?

This is the same reason why the women diminish in industry or faculty positions. It's possibly too competitive and they don't get enough support (maternity leave, etc...). Not to mention they need a husband who can share their work load with the family and support their career goals. I have heard of many women who broke up with their boyfriends, not because they didn't love them, but because the women realized that they weren't the kind of supportive men they needed to help them reach their goals.

The number of women in Science & Engineering (S&E) is still low, and declining. What are we doing wrong?

Suzanne also mentioned the problems with the low numbers of women in S&E. She gave three reasons that I have heard before, which indicates how important they are: limited role models (they need encouragement), low confidence (for example, most girls think they aren't good at math, while studies show boys and girls are equally as good), and the last one is stereotypes (many think S&E does not involve working with people, nor make a contribution to society, therefore they don't think it will be rewarding). And unfortunately outreach efforts are not working as well as we would hope and Suzanne does not yet have the solutions.

A surprising clue from the audience

There was a woman in the audience who works in Women's Studies. She said something that I rarely hear from speakers: that from her research sexism and gender issues are still present. Then I realized that she's right! I heard stories from women about their coworkers making sexist remarks over casual meetings, or their brothers demeaning them, or young female University students crying in the bathrooms because of comments made by their male classmates. Another thing that came to mind is how feminism is continuously portrayed in a bad light, by both women and men.

Feminism, let's clear the air

Feminism is defined as "the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men". Now I don't know how you perceive this definition, but let me first warn you that it has nothing to do with being against men. And I ask everyone, including women, not to use it in that way. Women and men both have a lot to offer, and diversity is the key. We all know that. So what do the women from WISE groups at University of Carleton, McMaster, Waterloo, and Toronto say it means? In a recent round-table meeting at McMaster's WISE conference, they said feminism is supporting women so they can achieve equally as great goals as men. I hate to break it to you, but males and females really are different, and fields like Science and Engineering are still dominated by a male culture. This means that women's needs are still not met, and the fact that we want to take care of a family is probably the biggest area in which we need support. I hear about it everywhere, it rings in my ears, and it hits home. As I mentioned before, this includes having husbands who share the family workload (chores, kids, and all). And so we would love for men to come out to our events and at least make an effort to understand our issues so there are no false perceptions. Men are part of the solution and we need their support!

Some women are not open to a group like WISE

Time and time again I hear from other women that women still prefer to have male bosses than female ones. I also notice that women think that they will fit in more if they don't show their feminine side, or show any visible effort to specifically support women. I hope the information provided here will help them realize that by avoiding this kind of mindset, they can help impact the futures of young women. Many of the female speakers I have listened to have said "do what you love, but make a contribution too because life will be much more rewarding when you give back."