Ève Gilroy, Environment and Climate Change Canada; Natalie Feisthauer, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada; Katie Hill, Health Canada; Yamini Gopalapillai, Environment and Climate Change Canada; and Oana Birceanu, Wilfrid Laurier University

In 2016, the Laurentian Regional Chapter of SETAC North America created the Women in Science Committee, with the initial goal of examining the chapter’s own practices regarding gender equity and representation within the organization. The committee then evolved to promote awareness of the barriers faced by not just women but also by members of the under-represented groups in science and to find solutions to address and, hopefully, remove such barriers. Now appropriately called the Diversity in Science Committee (DISC), the group has organized annual events in celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

The first event, held in 2017,  featured guest speaker Eden Hennessey, who creatively highlighted the issues faced by women in science through a photo display. The 2018 celebratory event was a natural and meaningful follow-up to the initial event, and it was titled “We Are Here: Constructive Actions towards Achieving Equity in Science.”

One of the goals of the event was to start a constructive dialogue on gender inequity in science. Research has shown that the voice of the majority often carries more weight than under-represented groups (as presented by Hennessey in 2017). Therefore, the committee made the effort to reach out to male scientists with this year’s event. Sixty-six members, non-members and friends of the Laurentian Chapter answered our invitation to talk equity, nearly a third of which were men. Success! It was heartwarming to observe that the invitation was answered with so much support and interest. The event extended into the evening for as long as our room booking permitted it, and it fostered further interactive discussions, some of which carried on into the subsequent days and weeks.

The event was designed as a panel discussion moderated by Yamini Gopalapillai, post-doctoral fellow at Environment and Climate Change Canada and now co-chair of the Diversity in Science Committee. Three panelists were invited to share their experience and insight into “Equity in Science” from a woman’s perspective. Each selected panelist represented one of the three pillars of SETAC (business, academia and government):

  • Alison Fraser, Project Director and Risk Assessment Specialist at Shared Value Solutions, Guelph, ON
  • Allison McDonald, Associate Professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, ON
  • Natalie Feisthauer, Soil and Nutrient Management Specialist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Guelph, ON

Barriers to Equity Faced by Women in Science

Gopalapillai started the panel with a presentation of a list of “Barriers to Equity” identified a prioriby the Diversity in Science Committee’s Katie Hill, Scientific Evaluator at Health Canada. Each panelist shared their personal experience pertaining to a few of these barriers (Figure 1), which have been identified as contributors to the loss and under-representation of women in STEM careers. A summary of the evening’s thought-provoking and stimulating discussion is provided below.

Barriers to Equity. From: NAP, 2006; AAUM, 2010

Figure 1. Barriers to Equity. From: NAP, 2006; AAUM, 2010

Lack of Support

McDonald candidly shared her experience about deciding to start her family while completing her PhD about fifteen years ago.  Notwithstanding the misguided comments (Was that an accident?” and “It’s a career killer!”), McDonald was dismayed upon learning that employment insurance would not cover her parental leave unless her advisor had funding from the National Science and Engineering Council (NSERC). To add to the challenge, she was asked to start repaying her student loans while on maternity leave since she was officially no longer in school. To prevent similar difficulties from happening during her second parental leave, McDonald worked at a call center during her pregnancy while continuing her education. Her experience is an example of the systemic problems surrounding issues encountered by women who are interested in pursuing a career and having children, which creates a barrier for women who wish to pursue scientific careers.

Work–Life Balance

Fraser shared that following the birth of her third child, she negotiated with her employer for a four-day work week so that she could achieve a work-life balance. Fortunately, Fraser’s employer recognized the value of attracting and retaining qualified employees, but this is not the norm.

Gender Bias in Employer’s Expectations

Feisthauer discussed the systemic societal bias that values a person’s time, not only by gender but by their status in life, and that all persons’ time should be considered valuable whether or not that person is married, does or does not have children, or any other care-giver obligations. She agreed with McDonald’s statement that science can be conducted in a way that supports a work–life balance for all (“Good science can be done 9–5”).

Unconscious Bias

Feisthauer brought attention to the unconscious bias that is a part of every aspect of the barriers that women in science face (e.g., confidence gap, hiring bias, etc.).  An increasing body of data is demonstrating that from an early age, we receive pervasive messaging that men are more “natural” scientists and leaders, and they “do” science better than women (discussed in length in Nature’s issue on Women in Science (Volume 495 Issue 7439, March 2013). As a result, one develops an unconscious bias, in both men and women, that supports and perpetuates this belief and gives rise to the barriers listed in Figure 1. Feisthauer challenged attendees, including herself, to assess their unconscious bias and actively work towards addressing them.

Confidence Gap

In the private sector and in academia, where employees have more opportunity to negotiate their salary, women are less likely to receive equivalent salary compared to men in the same position because they do a weaker job in selling their credentials. This phenomenon is underpinned by societal values resulting in a systemic confidence gap between men and women.

Emotional Burden

Women are often selected for committees or asked to take on additional tasks when it comes to professional service, and to mentor students or junior colleagues, activities in which men may often not be required to participate in or feel the need to do so. Many of these extra activities are not seen as real work, yet many women feel obligated to participate and get little to no benefit for it. This provides men with the added advantage of having more time to advance their career.

Leaky Pipeline

“It is a fire hose that sprays women everywhere,” said McDonald – many women don’t feel supported and are forced to make choices that men don’t have to make.

Solutions to These Barriers

After discussing barriers to equity, the panel and attendees eagerly discussed potential solutions to these barriers. Highlights include:

Mentors. Be the mentor at any stage in your career – at the beginning, middle and when in a senior position. Promote and support all young scientists and “walk the talk”: Identify barriers to women in your workplace and work to reduce them. For example, in a meeting, if you notice that a woman early in her career is quiet and not speaking, or is being interrupted or disregarded, draw her out in a supportive manner. This will allow her to meaningfully contribute and demonstrates to all at the meeting that she has an opinion of value. This is leading by example and works towards addressing others’ unconscious biases.

Change the metrics to foster equity. Be more holistic in defining success: Ensure a diverse hiring committee and design flexibility and openness in hiring and evaluating career progression. We had a lively discussion about quotas promoting gender equity in science. Examples were provided on successful initiatives in the European Union, such as Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network), to increase gender equity. Those most successful “followed the money” – funding of academic institutions was directly tied to meeting clear performance metrics around gender equity (e.g., use transparency in hiring practices, have a clear system to address identified biases, etc.). At the end of the discussion, all agreed that quotas without support was not enough (see article Without inclusion, diversity initiatives may not be enough). Although equal gender representation is a start in addressing gender inequity, it does not suffice in creating a supportive and equitable environment. As a SETAC regional chapter in Canada, we are proud to mention that the Government of Canada is considering adopting an Athena SWAN initiative in Canada, led by the Minister of Science and Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, the Honourable Kirsty Duncan.

Additional snapshots of the many solutions to these barriers:

  • Find mentors – they come in any shape, form, color or identity (also, don’t feel badly for “taking their time” because they are learning a lot from you as well)
  • Identify your own unconscious gender bias (see Implicit Association Test). If you don’t see a problem, you can’t fix it
  • Be that example. Each one of us can make a difference
  • Start with your children or mentees
  • Redefine success – perhaps by being more holistic
  • Change the metrics to foster equity – ensuring a diverse hiring committee, flexibility
  • Ask about diversity and inclusion statements
  • Never take yourself out of the running. There will be plenty of other people to tell you no
  • Recognize imposter syndrome, which many of us deal with. Remind yourself of your strengths and achievements

Bridging the Gap

The theme of the 2018 International Women’s Day is #PressForProgress. Ève Gilroy, co-chair of the DISC, challenged the attendees in the name of the committee to take action towards equity:

  • Maintain a gender parity mindset
  • Challenge stereotypes and bias
  • Forge positive visibility of women
  • Influence others’ beliefs and actions
  • Celebrate women’s achievements

The DISC is proud to comment that since its creation in 2016, it has contributed to several of these important actions towards gender equity. We look forward to further contributing to change.

Authors’ contact information: eve.gilroy@canada.ca, natalie.feisthauer@agr.gc.ca, katherine.hill@canada.ca and yamini9@gmail.com,

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References and Resources

View job opportunities in the SETAC Career Center
Submit a session for SETAC Toronto
SETAC Africa 9th Biennial Conference
Environmental Risk Assessment of PFAS
Submit a session proposal for SETAC Cartagena
ET&C Virtual Issue on polar environments