There is a perception that chemistry is an objective science, one that should be unaffected by the personal. We know that is not the case. We know that women experience different career paths because of different external expectations, different opportunities and our own different expectations of ourselves. We have seen that visible minorities and indigenous peoples are vastly under-represented in academia and that those who are there often encounter bias and inequitable treatment. My own experiences as an out, lesbian PhD student and academic have been influenced by my “otherness” in ways that even I do not fully comprehend.
These issues of equity and diversity were very much on our minds at the 99th Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition in Halifax this past June. Even before the conference itself, the Canadian Council of University Chemistry Chairs (CCUCC) were discussing, not for the first time, the embarrassingly low numbers of women receiving and being nominated for Canadian Society for Chemistry (CSC) and Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC) awards. This conversation was repeated throughout the conference and, for the first time, concrete strategies were developed and implemented to attempt to remediate the situation.
While the under-representation of women — not only in awards but in all aspects of academia — is a serious problem, the issues of diversity and, more importantly, equity do not end there. True inclusivity and equity will only be achieved if we look beyond the statistics and embrace an intersectional approach to understanding and addressing the complexities of identity.
The symposium on Equity and Diversity in Chemistry, which was part of the Chemistry Education Division’s program at the CSC conference, aimed to do just that by focusing on how the intersecting experiences of gender, race, ability, ethnic origin, indigenous identity, sexual orientation and gender identity impact how we experience our lives as scientists. In this symposium a diverse group of faculty, students and postdocs came together to share their experiences, insights and strategies for building a more equitable and inclusive teaching and research environment. We heard of the agonizingly slow progress towards equal representation of women in academic positions and the systemic and cultural factors that have limited this progress. We heard of local and national initiatives that challenge these barriers. We also heard similar statistics and stories about the experiences of visible minorities — in particular of minority women. We learned about initiatives designed to remove barriers to the participation of indigenous youth in science activities. We heard from students who had to overcome biased preconceptions of their potential and compelling accounts of the challenges of students with learning disabilities.
In my own presentation I shared my experiences as a student and faculty member who has always been “other:” a woman, lesbian and a person who thinks and believes differently from the majority of those around me. I described how our sexual orientation and gender identity impact how we relate to people and how they relate to us and how never knowing how we will be perceived and received cultivates a fear that we cannot help but internalize, which ultimately impacts our career in ways that are sometimes obvious and more often not.
After our symposium I heard many conversations — in the hallways and meeting rooms and later by email. It seems to me that our chemistry community is now ready to hear the stories and take action. The CSC’s new strategic plan identifies diversity as one of six priority initiatives for the next five years. Towards this goal the CSC has created a diversity working group. I look forward to participating in this initiative, and continuing the discussions that we began in Halifax.
Proceedings of the Equity and Diversity in Chemistry Symposium have been published. Order copies by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://hmpublishing.redshelf.com/book/498014.
Nola Etkin is a chemistry professor at the University of Prince Edward Island. Her equity work began while a PhD student at the University of Alberta.