The CIC is celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science (February 11th)! We know that many of you in the Canadian chemical sciences community will be hosting or attending an IUPAC Global Women’s Breakfast on February 12th. There are more than 20 events happening in Canada from coast to coast and we encourage you to attend and connect with your local community.
At the CIC, we are celebrating by joining in on the conversation around supporting women and girls in STEM. We wanted to hear from women in our CIC community about ways to help make Canadian chemical sciences even more inclusive. We are delighted to hear from:
- Alison Thompson, MCIC, Professor in the Department of Chemistry, Dalhousie University; 2020 winner of the CSC’s Clara Benson award; https://pyrrole.chemistry.dal.ca/; @ThompsonLabDal
- Milena Sejnoha, Director of Research and Development at the National Research Council of Canada; former CIC Board Chair (2017-2018)
- Zeinab Hosseini-Doust, Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, McMaster University; Can. J. Chem. Eng. Associate Editor; www.biohybridslab.com; @Z_Doust
- Nour Tanbouza, MCIC, PhD Student in the Department of Chemistry, Université Laval; Co-Chair of the 2020 LOGIC Retreat; @Nour_Tanbouza
- Anika Tarasewicz, Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Texas, Austin; CEO of the Canadian Women in Chemistry (CWIC) Network; @AnikaOVT
We sent out a list of 12 questions, asking our respondents to choose which ones they answered. The respondent’s last name is indicated before their answer; note that not everyone answered all of the questions and all responses were included. Here, we provide the question, followed by their answers in full, so that you can hear directly from them.
- What can organizations/institutions do to encourage girls to go into the chemical sciences and what can be done to support women better as they progress in their careers in those fields?
Thompson: In my opinion, the challenge is not solely with “going into the chemical fields” but also with “maintaining gender balance in the chemical sciences as people advance in their careers.” We only need to look around our undergrad classes to see that many women take chemistry classes, but longitudinal studies show again and again that women actively select careers divergent from the chemical sciences once their undergraduate courses are complete.
Sejnoha: Communicate the multitude of opportunities that result from a degree in this field, not only in chemistry of engineering, but research, management, policy development, the medical field, law, etc. Bring chemistry to life by explaining its role in everyday items and events as organizations such as McGill’s Office for Science and Society do so effectively. This demystifies the field and triggers curiosity and underlines its utility, and should be introduced in elementary and high school courses.
Hosseini-Doust: I believe outreach programs can be very impactful at encouraging girls to go into sciences. These programs should start at a young age. We have to empower our girls (and boys) before cliché’s and stigmas have a chance to mold their personalities. As for support along the career path, mentorship programs could be useful, even if it’s not in a formal manner. Even a lecture series highlighting outstanding women in science could help.
Tanbouza: Organizations should seek better ways to destigmatize being a woman scientist in the eye of the public. The stereotypes around chemists/scientists are mostly influenced by media. Therefore, organizations should better seek the attention of various media outlets to publicize the beauty and creativity of the chemical world.
Tarasewicz: In my opinion, organizations/institutions can change their strategies, policies, and structural systems in order to encourage girls and retain women in the chemical sciences. Many girls are warned about the challenges that women face in the workforce, such as work-life balance, sexual harassment, increased amount of administrative duties, and prejudices about their capabilities. Altering the system of an organization, advertising these new policies, and holding people accountable is a method that can encourage girls to become part of the chemical sciences.
- What are some challenges/barriers that women might face in chemical science fields?
Thompson: There are lots, and we should recognize that an individual might experience challenges and barriers that other people have not thought of or recognized. Some challenges and barriers include lack of role models in general; lack of role models demonstrating varied/attractive work/life balance habits; agentic behaviour. There is continued demonstration that success as an academic in science expects 100% of both your time and your soul, yet, it’s not realistic that everyone aspiring to be a scientist might wish to spend their time and energy in this fashion; many see the chemical sciences as hands-on, messy, and requiring physical work such as lifting and so, again, this might not appeal to everyone. We need to do a better job, and be provided with the resources and technical expertise such that scientists can indeed be scientists.
Sejnoha: Some organizations follow the command and control method, and negative reinforcement of management, which traditionally is not the preferred approach for female employees and managers. More and more organizations are recognizing that there are a variety of alternate management and delivery methods of achieving the desired results. Understand the goals of your organization and demonstrate that you can achieve results using an alternate approach, which may be more collaborative, inclusive, and perhaps indirect.
Hosseini-Doust: There are internal barriers and external ones. Certain barriers are internalized and molded into a young girl’s personality in school, especially if they never have a chance to see women in leadership roles and successful women in sciences. This is where outreach programs can be impactful. External barriers stem from the fact that the entire career landscape (academic and non-academic) down to the physical space has been designed for men. In the current landscape, successful women caring for young children (and there is no shortage of brilliant women in science who are mothers) do so at a great burden to their physical and mental health. More often, there is little support available for scientists with young children. This is exacerbated by the fact that one of the realities for today’s professionals is that most of us end up working away from our extended family, so we lack the support that was traditionally provided by family. Under these conditions, providing support for young families is one of the most effective ways to retain professional women in sciences.
Tarasewicz: There has been significant progress towards equity for women in the chemical sciences, however, there is still a lot more work that needs to be done. In my view, there is still unconscious bias in the workforce towards women. Both women and men exhibit behaviours that are aligned with social stereotypes without realizing it. It has been shown that professors use different language when writing reference letters for women than men, using more relationship-building characteristics (ex. caring) rather than action-oriented characteristics (ex. confident). This poses roadblocks to women and girls in STEM since it can hinder their progression and education as scientists. Becoming aware of unconscious biases can decrease such incidences, as most individuals will focus their efforts to correct their prejudices.
There are also other challenges that need to be addressed, especially with intersectionality. Most of the current diversity and inclusion efforts have allowed for succession of primarily white women. Individuals who self-identify with multiple identities (ie, persons of colour, LGBTQ+, persons with disabilities, Indigenous Persons of Canada) have not gained the same benefits. Often, we discount very real experiences that these individuals go through, and forget to address changes that could be made to accommodate these issues when pushing for progress in the chemical sciences. More effort needs to be placed on ensuring that the challenges observed by intersectional individuals are also addressed in order for everyone to succeed in the chemical sciences.
- What have you found to be the most beneficial types of IDE (inclusion/diversity/equity) initiatives?
Thompson: Grass-roots ones where someone essentially acts a sponsor (not financially, but in terms of support/pathway). I have also seen effective results when someone “calls out” an inappropriate action/verbalization in an environment like a meeting or a lab discussion – or “calls in,” ie, commends, a positive action/statement. As a person with a disability, I’ve been in countless situations where people assume that my style, or lack of, verbalization means I don’t understand or that I have nothing to contribute – but I’ve come to realize that most people aren’t being mean when they assume that, it’s just that they are unfamiliar with a particular circumstance and so their reaction perhaps catches them of-guard. And so now, perhaps because I’m more bold than when I was younger, I can empower inclusion, on the long term, by pointing out behaviours and giving positive alternatives, all with a smile. We have to realize though, that as individuals we don’t always get this right.
Sejnoha: I have had several mentors during my career, which helped me grow as a professional and branch out into areas such as policy development and management. They happen to all have been men who encouraged me to take on greater responsibilities, provided guidance, believed that I had the capabilities to take on the new challenges, and also provided guidance during difficult moments.
Hosseini-Doust: At McMaster, we have a number of such initiatives. We have the Life Event Fund that funds a research assistant for professors who go on a leave for maternity, parental, or health reasons. We also have teaching relief in similar cases. I have found both of these to be very beneficial.
Tanbouza: These types of initiatives are pivotal for creating a thriving community that stems from its diversity and equal opportunities. They allow for safe spaces to have conversations on what we can do better as a whole to make students and staff feel more included, comfortable, and welcome in order for them to achieve their best at what they do. IDE initiatives have been extremely influential in improving inclusive decision making within institutions who are seeing the fruits of that work in the output of their personnel.
- How can organizations/initiatives/spaces for women in STEM ensure that they are supporting women who may face multiple barriers, like women of colour, LGBTQ+ women, indigenous women, and women with disabilities?
Thompson: I don’t think the method changes – really, I think it’s about grass-roots initiatives, supporting/sponsoring, and trying to be aware.
Hosseini-Doust: I can only speak for myself. At the moment my biggest concern is finding reliable childcare because even though I am on maternity leave, I am still responsible for a research lab with graduate students who rely on me to guide them in their research. As I mentioned before, McMaster’s Life Event Fund has been very beneficial because it allowed me to hire an RA. When my maternity leave ends, so will the support but my job as a mother will only get more difficult. Having access to a pool of reliable childcare professionals would be very helpful.
- What does the Canadian chemical sciences community do well to support women and what can we improve on?
Hosseini-Doust: I’m not sure about this one, I’m sure there are programs to support women in science, but I’m not familiar with them. On that note, maybe more outreach is needed so that people like me become more familiar with the support that is available through Canadian Chemical Sciences.
- Is there a woman scientist/engineer who particularly inspires you, or any recent research from women in the chemical sciences that you would like to highlight?
Thompson: I was recently awarded the Clara Benson award and so I investigated its origins. I learned that Dr. Benson was a physical chemist, yet she could not secure a job as a woman in chemistry. Instead she was offered a position in food science, thought at that time to be a women’s subject – I’m glad times have changed, because my own style of food preparation and design involves far too much experimentation and ad hoc behaviour for me to be successful as a food scientist!
Hosseini-Doust: There are so many! My first and biggest role model is my mother: she is a microbiology professor and she continues to inspire me. She never hesitates to drop everything to support her family and at the same time manages to run a successful research lab. I still have a long way to go to get to that stage. My PhD advisor is another one (Dr. Nathalie Tufenkji at McGill).
- Do you have any advice for women starting out in chemical sciences?
Thompson: Think about leadership styles, and align yourself with a scientist who demonstrates the leadership approach that you aspire to.
Hosseini-Doust: Don’t let the roadblocks deter you. You have so much to offer. The more women persevere in science the more the career landscape will have to bend to our needs, so don’t wait for the landscape to become inviting, go in and change it to your will.
Tanbouza: I will quote Eleanor Roosevelt on this: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” As long as you go through your career wholeheartedly, nothing can stand in your way. From my personal experience and journey, I will tell you that I do not come from a background of academics, nor was I encouraged to pursue higher education while growing up, but I had a passion for chemistry that could not be put out by negativity. Times are changing and cycles are breaking, so now is a great time to be a chemist or in STEM fields in general.
Tarasewicz: For women starting in the chemical sciences, I would suggest finding a supportive group/organization that aligns with your interests. A group/organization allows for actionable items to be designed and executed. Being part of something can allow for educational opportunities and tangible progress to be made.
- How do you build resilience in the face of discrimination and institutional barriers?
Thompson: Amongst other things, procure a hobby that requires you to dedicate your physical and mental energy wholeheartedly – I find that gives me a chance to figure out a plan.
Sejnoha: Develop a network of individuals you relate to and respect, that you can rely on for advice. Seek out a mentors and/or a coach who has experience in the organization or the field and who can provide guidance.
Hosseini-Doust: Community plays a big role. When minorities come together, they can support each other in the face of discrimination. We have come a long way in this regard, but there is still so much to do.
- If you could change one thing in the chemical sciences community for the next generation of women, what would it be?
Hosseini-Doust: I would design workspaces to be more inviting to children. I would encourage mothers to bring their children to work. I would design play spaces for children, buildings, and maybe have an optional babysitter. This model is already available in many gyms, clubs, and swimming pools. I don’t understand why employers are hesitant to adopt the model when it’s clear that it can have a big impact on the productivity of professional women with young families. Besides, exposing our children at a very young age to inclusive work environments where women are not asked to check their mother persona at the door to be scientists and leaders is the best form of empowering our boys and girls from a very young age. I think the current segregated environment is one of the reasons we are still talking about empowering and encouraging girls to go into STEM. We have so many remarkable women in STEM, maybe we should expose our boys and girls to this fact from a young age. Maybe if they see women in workspaces, they won’t be so lost when the time comes to carve a role out for themselves in the society.
- What can you do in your teaching to support women in the chemical sciences?
Thompson: Make the subject, and how to succeed in it, be less agentic – our subject will then be more attractive to all. This, to me, means making the undergraduate subject more about analysis and developing educated opinions than about being able to recite lists of absolutes and named reactions.
Hosseini-Doust: This is a tough one. I think the best I can do is be what I preach. My doing a good job can be very impactful. I don’t believe girls in my class need special treatment. They are all very smart and capable.
- Is there anything that you think publishing could be doing better to promote or support diversity?
Thompson: Ensure that reviewers back up their sweeping statements with reference to published work.
Hosseini-Doust: Yes, double blind reviews! Currently the review process is only blind for the author. I think we should make it so that the reviewer also doesn’t see the identity of the author. This would eliminate the postal code bias and the gender bias.
- What can allies do to better support women in the chemical sciences?
Thompson: I think we can all help each other, no matter the gender, by committing to being an active listener.
We are very grateful for the time spent by our respondents on answering these questions and we hope that their answers prompt you to think about these questions as well. The CIC would like to keep this conversation going, so if you want to send us your own responses to any of these questions, they would be welcome. If we receive further answers, we could run this feature again with new respondents, and of course the information is helpful for us to get more ideas on the kind of support our diverse community wants to see from us at the CIC.