December 1, 2006

Gender equality still not an exact science

Women are achieving greater representation in universities, but gender disparities still plague science

by Caitlin Crawshaw
Women are achieving greater representation in universities, but gender disparities still plague science

This November, Statistics Canada reported that enrolment in Canadian universities hit the one-million mark last year for the first time ever and that women accounted for more than half of all students.

Released Nov. 7, the survey of undergraduate and graduate registrations indicated that female students now account for 58 per cent of all registrations, compared with 56 per cent in 1994/1995 and 51 per cent in 1984/1985. When you break the numbers down by level, women are a strong majority in both categories, comprising 59 per cent of undergraduate students and 53 per cent of graduate students.

But while this might suggest that the gender gap has narrowed in all fields, long-time women-in-science advocate Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour argues that women are still not represented equally in science - particularly in the upper echelons of academia.

Armour explains that while women do account for slightly half of the undergraduates in science programs, this number varies greatly across disciplines. In first-year U of A engineering classes, for instance, only about a quarter of all students are women (though this is greater than the 18-per-cent Canadian average). In computing science, female enrolments are on the decline. Overall, women continue to be well represented in the life sciences - like biology and chemistry - but not as represented in traditionally male-dominated sciences like math and physics.

Further, women are choosing graduate studies in science in greater numbers than ever before, though it is still uneven. Men represent 54 per cent of doctoral registrations, down from 61 per cent a decade ago.

Of the women who choose to pursue a PhD in science, few follow it with a postdoctoral fellowship. In other words, when they reach the ideal time for beginning a family, women change course.

"Of the post-docs in biological sciences, only 10 per cent are women. There's a real drop off there, and that has to do with the biological clock," she said.

"That's certainly one of the places where we're seeing a break in the numbers. And we see it in the numbers of faculty members across science - there are 15 per cent women faculty, and that hasn't changed for seven years. That's what the real concern is."

"People often say, just give it time, but it's not changing," added Armour. "And we know there are an awful lot of reasons for this. I've talked to graduate students and the message is, 'I don't want the stresses and busy lifestyle that I see my supervisor have.' So they are choosing other careers than academe."

As Associate Dean (Diversity) of the U of A Faculty of Science, Armour is working to change these numbers by targeting graduate students.

"The first thing I've been doing is sitting on selection committees and looking at things we can do to attract women to apply for positions we have available."

Part of this involves proactive measures like chatting with specific women to encourage them to put their hat in the ring and changing job postings to make the job descriptions broader. "Women look at an ad, and if they don't think their qualifications meet everything in the ad…they don't even apply," she explained.

While they don't get special treatment after they apply, "we need to get the applications in the first place - if we don't get them, we can't hire women."

Armour says another critical aspect is the education of both women and men, in the systematic biases that still influence the hiring process.

"We know, and this is astonishing to me that we're still doing this, but when a group of women and men look at a woman's CV, they rank it slightly lower than an identical CV which they believe is that of a man."

On top of these strategies, Armour says departments must actively seek out female scientists to give talks on campus. "That gives a message that there are women out there who are in academia and enjoying it and doing very well."

She explains that younger women are more likely to consider academe when they have women role models.

U of A President Dr. Indira Samarasekera agrees. In an interview with CBC Radio's Michael Enright, she explained that it is important to publicly "celebrate role models of women who have succeeded." She herself knew of few women engineers during her university education in Sri Lanka, but says she was glad for the support from her colleagues - who were overwhelmingly male - in the engineering faculty.

Samarasekera doesn't think that being the only woman, or among few women, is necessarily the biggest stumbling block or hindrance to women eyeing academia in a scientific discipline. The bigger challenge may be one's reaction to being a minority.

"Sometimes there are internal as much as external barriers. And the internal barriers are getting used to feeling out of place, to being different. I was the only woman in mechanical engineering at the time, and I remember feeling out of place constantly," she explained.

However, she describes herself as "a person who believes passionately that you take a situation where you may feel uncomfortable, and you try to turn it around." Clearly, she has done just that.

Canadian astronaut Julie Payette is familiar with being one of a handful of girls studying physics and engineering, but says she "never felt out of place, or that anyone made me feel that way during my studies. So, I went to U of T and McGill in engineering, and I was very much in my place and had a grand time."

Payette, who received an honorary degree at the U of A fall convocation, acknowledges that there are some myths about who is best suited for engineering, science, math and physics, but doesn't think we should focus on recruiting women into science. Instead, she argues that everyone should be encouraged to pursue science.

"The way I approach it is it's important that we have technical people, because we are a technological society. (Having) more people embrace technological careers - men and women - is important for our society…"

Armour might disagree. She argues that there needs to be concrete solutions in place to make academia work with the lives of women. Access to child care, especially, should be offered. Armour adds that it is becoming increasingly important for the U of A to meet the needs of female academics, in the face of stiff competition from other universities which are all eyeing up the brightest scientists.

"If we're going to attract top candidates, particularly top young women, we've got to be able to show that this is the kind of place where they'll find the kind of support they want for their kids and that there's mentorship so their career will be successful," said Armour, adding that the U of A Faculty of Science has had a mentorship program for the last 2-1/2 years.

Dr. Lindsey Carmichael graduated from the U of A in November with a PhD in biological sciences and the Governor General's Gold Medal. She's now beginning a career as a children's book author, and not pursuing an academic career. Carmichael says her reason for shifting gears relates to a long-time desire to become an author and that she intends to remain in science, in minimally stressful roles.

In her view, it's a great time to be a woman in science since "universities and funding agencies are working hard to ensure equal opportunities for both sexes."

But Carmichael says the culture of academia is still affected by inequities. "Sexism is far from dead in academia," she said. There remains a dichotomy in terms of how peers and supervisors interact with women and men. This difference isn't always apparent. "The vast majority of male faculty and graduate students are great people and treat female graduate students just as they would males," she said, but sometimes it rears its ugly head.

She recalls how a friend of hers, who now works in a cancer genetics lab at Stanford University, was once told by her professor, during her undergraduate education, that she wasn't smart enough to go into genetics. He suggested instead that she pursue nursing. "Considering how I've felt on receiving far less horrifying condescension, I will never know how she managed to refrain from hauling off and slugging him," said Carmichael.

"It's also sad but true that these kinds of problems are most often experienced by women who would be considered especially attractive," she added. "I have a number of grad-school friends who are brilliant, competent, incredible women and also happen to be beautiful (or "hotties," as their students write on their evaluations). The off-hand comments these women will receive, and the general attitude towards them, can be disheartening and occasionally disgusting."

Samarasekera believes that whenever possible, the university needs to send the message that stereotyping women is always inappropriate, but she says there are differences between men and women that are relevant to how we learn.

"Men and women have the same average intelligence, but I think there are differences. The question of 'Do those differences contribute to a different aptitude in doing science and math?' - I think the jury's still out on that one, but I don't think there is, quite frankly, if (women are) given the opportunity to do science. Having said that, they approach the questions differently and may come up with different answers," she said.

It is precisely because of these differences that science needs women, says Armour.

"Women are still socialized a little differently than men, so they bring different questions which I think is very important. They bring different ways of asking the questions and they bring a desire to have strong interaction with their colleagues," she said. "Women tend to enjoy working together and, as science becomes more interdisciplinary, that becomes an important characteristic."