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Women in STEM: Challenges and Barriers

By Christina Barron-Ortiz, Assistant Curator of Quaternary Palaeontology

February 11, 2022

I invite you to close your eyes and picture yourself in June of 1968. Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson is playing on the radio as you drive to the Provincial Museum and Archives of Alberta. A week ago, you came across a natural history specimen that really caught your attention and you decided to take it to the museum to have it identified. One of the members of the curatorial staff, a man, meets you by the admissions desk to inspect your find.

When the Provincial Museum of Alberta and Archives of Alberta (now known as the Royal Alberta Museum[RAM]) opened in 1967 all the curators and curatorial staff were men. The museum had only three women on staff, all of them secretaries. Today, if you were to take a natural history specimen to the RAM for identification, the curatorial staff member you would meet would be just as likely to be a woman as a man. This change is not unique to RAM; representation of women scientists has grown at many Canadian museums and institutions.

Despite the relative increase in women in science in Canada and around the world, they still face challenges and barriers that can significantly affect their opportunities to obtain an advanced degree, their probability to be hired, and their likelihood to progress in their career.

I met with two inspiring scientists—Dr. Jessica Theodor (a palaeontologist at the University of Calgary) and Dr. Hilary Corlett (a geologist at MacEwan University)—to talk about some of the challenges that women in science still face and ideas about how to overcome them.

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Two photos of women (Dr. Theodor and Dr. Corlett) smiling at the camera
Dr. Jessica Theodor (left) and Dr. Hilary Corlett (right)

 

Women in science and engineering in Canada: a quick look at the numbers

The representation of women in science in Canada, particularly at the undergraduate level, has changed dramatically over the span of a couple generations. For example, Dr. Corlett’s aunt, Dr. Mabel Corlett, was the first woman to obtain a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Geology at Queen’s University in 1960. “She was a pioneer in geology,” says Dr. Corlett, adding that her aunt later became the first geology professor at Queen’s University. In recent years, Canadian universities awarded approximately 40 percent of undergraduate degrees in Science and Engineering to women, according to a report by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC 2010).

Unfortunately, women’s representation in Science and Engineering at the undergraduate level does not translate to higher education levels or to participation in the labour force. Women represent approximately 25 percent of the Science and Engineering labour force and around 20 percent of university faculty in Science and Engineering disciplines are women (NSERC 2010). “There are many young women interested in science, but they leave at every stage,” says Dr. Theodor. Virtually at every step in the education and career ladder, the representation of women in science decreases.

Both Dr. Corlett and Dr. Theodor point to a number of factors that push women out of science at every level, including harassment and hostility, gender bias, and lack of institutional support to foster a healthy work-life balance. These issues are not unique to women in science and they affect women in several other job sectors.

 

Harassment, hostility, and discrimination: the dark side of science

“There is a lot of hostility, particularly in anything field-based,” says Dr. Theodor, “there are a lot women who have been harassed during fieldwork.” Dr. Corlett adds, “the situation in the field can make women feel uncomfortable or not welcomed.” According to a recent study by Clancy and colleagues (2014) sexual harassment is not only common in scientific fieldwork, but it disproportionately affects women trainees, especially undergraduate and graduate students. Harassment not only pushes women out of science but it also leaves emotional scars that are hard to heal.

Dr. Corlett adds that her experience of bias and discrimination in fieldwork is compounded by the fact that she has a physical disability. “I have been fully left out of going to the field many times and passed over for field opportunities when I do work in the field; I have field-based research.” She says people assume what she can or cannot do in the field. “I am keenly aware of what I can and can’t do because I have to think about it every day. So, having someone tell me ‘no, you can’t go up that hill’ and I am like ‘yes I can. How do you know?’”

Hostility and discrimination towards women also manifests in other ways. Dr. Corlett points out that the expertise of women in science is often dismissed or questioned in both industry and academia. Dr. Theodor adds that women in science do not get cited as often as men. She also mentions that at some institutions, women scientists “have also been systematically discriminated in terms of space and access to equipment,” citing a report released by MIT (1999).

As president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, Dr. Theodor is taking an active role in helping revise the society’s Code of Conduct and developing efficient and safe protocols for reporting harassment during conferences or at other events organized by the society. Dr. Corlett recently led a panel discussion at MacEwan University after the screening of the documentary film Picture a Scientist. Harassment and hostility, particularly towards women, are two of the issues featured in the film.

Not only do we need to raise awareness about harassment and discrimination in science, but work culture as a whole needs to improve. Dr. Corlett mentions that in her career she has experienced work environments in which “the rapport between women and men was more collegial,” but others in which women faced some degree of discrimination or exclusion.

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Dr. Corlett stands beside a rock formation.
Dr. Hilary Corlett working in the field.

Gender bias

Another factor that severely disadvantages women in science is gender bias. Gender bias is the differential treatment of men and women, which can have negative, positive, or neutral effects depending on the situation. In science (and in other fields as well), gender bias has a negative impact on women. Gender bias manifests itself in different areas including the hiring process and when writing and reviewing letters of reference.

As far as the hiring process is concerned, Dr. Theodor points out, “there are biases in the way that job ads are written.” The language used in job advertisements in industry and academia often tends to discourage women from applying. For example, science job descriptions commonly use words that are stereotypically associated with men, such as analytical, autonomous, decisive, independent, and leader. There is evidence to suggest that job advertisements which use this type of gender-coded language dissuade women from applying (Gaucher et al. 2011). Dr. Theodor also says that since faculty has traditionally been dominated by men, “they tend to replicate that structure.” Dr. Corlett mentions that gender bias in the hiring process can manifest in other, less subtle ways. She is aware of women who were screened out of a job competition solely because they were pregnant, and not based on their merits or qualifications. Exactly how common this latter type of hiring bias is in science and engineering is not clear, but a recent study that evaluated firms in central Europe found evidence of hiring discrimination in women based on fertility for part-time jobs (Becker et al. 2019)

A number of studies have shown that letters of reference are plagued with unconscious gender bias (e.g., Dutt et al. 2016, Madera et al. 2019). People writing letters of reference will tend to use different words for men and women. “It all has to do with stereotypes on what they expect for women,” explains Dr. Theodor. “They will talk about how well she manages her career in spite of her children and that subtly influences committees away from women.”

In recent years, there has been a greater awareness of gender bias. There are many resources available to help recognize and address gender bias in science. Dr. Corlett indicates that once you are aware of potential biases you are more likely to identify them. Dr. Theodor points out that in the recent search committees that she has been a part of they have been careful to check the language of job advertisements they have posted to “make sure that we are not coding in a lot of words that would discourage women to apply.” They also made a commitment to not only advertise but to go “out on to online sources and encourage women to apply,” and, in the last search committee that she was a part of, they did not look at letters of reference until they had already selected their shortlist.

 

Lack of institutional support to foster a healthy work-life balance

Another important factor that can push women out of science is the lack of support women get from employers when balancing work and life, particularly if they have or would like to have children. Both academia and industry do not lend themselves well to women with families. Dr. Corlett says that women in science are often explicitly or implicitly told that they have to choose between their career, or having a family.

Regarding faculty demands, Dr. Theodor says, “we are asking women to put in a ton of time right at the moment when if they want to have kids they need to.” She emphasizes that “a lot of the things that people thought would help--like stopping tenure clocks--helps women some, but if you give men parental leave at the same time as women, men will get stuff written and women will be looking after their kids, because there is an unequal division of labour in society.” Ultimately, this affects women’s research output, which in turn affects their access to funding and their career advancement.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have amplified the inequality between women and men in science. A recent report released by UNESCO (2021), states that a large proportion of women in science are spending more time than usual taking care of a dependant and on household chores during the pandemic. As women struggle to attend to higher household and family demands, their research output is taking a toll. Women that have at least one child five years old or younger reported a 17 percent larger decline in research time when compared to men. The same report states that women are submitting fewer papers for publication, uploading less preprints, and starting fewer research projects than men.

There are multiple ways that institutions and society as a whole can alleviate the barriers faced by women in science. Dr. Corlett says that employers, particularly in industry, could introduce more flexible work hours. Dr. Theodor emphasizes that “we don’t offer good childcare,” so “offering more childcare spaces and subsidised child care” could increase the productivity of women in the workplace. She adds that just as important is “normalizing family labour for men.”

In addition, the way we measure productivity in science needs to change. Publication output, particularly in high impact journals, and student supervision are typically the way that we measure success in science, but this needs to expand to take into account other ways in which researchers are having an impact in science. For example, Dr. Corlett points out that some funding agencies like NSERC are now allowing researchers to report activities like outreach and networking as part of their significant contributions to science.

 

A bright future for women in science?

Science benefits from diversity (Swartz et al. 2019). Scientists with different perspectives often ask different questions, which in turn leads to new insights. Ultimately, this allows us to identify and address a wider variety of issues in creative and innovative ways. If we lose women in science, we lose a significant portion of the intellectual potential for creativity and innovation.

In addition, Dr. Corlett points out that “women can play an important role in fostering scientific collaborations” and enhancing research outcomes. There is evidence to suggest that increasing the representation of women in research teams could lead to greater collective intelligence in scientific teamwork (Woolley et al. 2010). The challenges that our society is currently facing, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and biodiversity loss will require efficient and strong collaborations across different disciplines and institutions as well as innovative solutions.

Science needs the perspectives and skills that women bring. It is, therefore, extremely important that we address the barriers and challenges that push women out of science. Dr. Theodor feels that a large part of the change “comes down to hiring and institutional willingness.” Institutions in industry and academia not only need to evaluate how they operate, but they also need to encourage dialogue around the sustainability of women’s careers in science. Only by having sincere and open discussions can we identify and address barriers faced by women scientists, and guarantee a bright future for women in science.

 

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Dr. Jessica Theodor and Dr. Hilary Corlett for taking time out of their schedules to discuss women in science and the barriers they face. Their comments and insight formed the basis of this blog post. I would also like to thank Dr. Alwynne Beaudoin for providing me with historical information on the RAM, pointing me to relevant resources, and for discussions on the subject. Additional thanks go to Dr. Christopher Jass, Debbie Graham, Kelsie Tetreau, Terje Snow, and Oksana Gowin who provided feedback on earlier drafts. Lastly, I would like to thank Duncan Parliament for providing feedback and for assisting with proofreading.