On International Day for Women & Girls in Science, we must amplify & support the next generation
February 10, 2022 | Blog, News
International Day for Women and Girls in Science, observed annually on February 11, is a day to celebrate the women trailblazers in science and amplify the next generation. But it’s also a time to reflect and call to action the need for transformative change to address systemic inequities, according to Dr. Kate Shannon, Executive Director of the Centre for Gender & Sexual Health Equity and Professor of Social Medicine at the University of British Columbia.
“Across the globe, there are major gender gaps in representation of women and girls in science, and this is only amplified for Indigenous, Black and other racialized women as well as LGBTQ/2S researchers. The stats are alarming and demonstrate systemic barriers to women entering and staying in academia ranging from public health and medicine to social sciences,” Dr. Shannon continued.
From students to faculty, evidence shows that women contribute more labour for less academic credit, receive less compelling evaluations, spend more time on mentoring and service, experience harassment, and are more likely to hold precarious positions. As in other fields, evidence shows that women must perform to a higher standard than men to receive the similar recognition and are far less likely to move into leadership positions. A 2019 Lancet paper by Canadian research leaders Witterman et al found in an analysis of over 20,000 research applications in Canada, that the gender gaps in research funding was attributed to less favourable reviews of women as principal investigators. [source]
“Women and gender diverse people often must prove that they deserve to be in STEM and prove that the work that they are doing is just as important as their men-identifying peers.”
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research released data in 2020 further confirming significant gender gaps in research support for women, when compared to men with no data on non-binary people. For women, especially Indigenous, Black and other racialized women, as well as LGBTQ/2S people, a lack of representation within mentors continues to amplify systemic inequities. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these gaps, with women disproportionately taking on the role of caregivers. [source]
“Acknowledging the history of women in science is really important, carrying that forward, and being sure to include women, women of colour and gender diverse people in the literature in order to give their research credibility,” said Mika Ohtsuka (she/they), a trainee at CGSHE and a doctoral student at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health.
“The diversity and inclusion of women and gender diverse people in STEM is growing and there are more women and gender diverse STEM mentors in the field who are doing amazing work and creating more inclusive environments,” said Chelsey Perry-Ens (she/they), a CGSHE trainee and Masters student in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University. But barriers continue to persist, she added. “From my experience and what I have witnessed, women and gender diverse people often must prove that they deserve to be in STEM and prove that the work that they are doing is just as important as their men-identifying peers.”
Prerna Thaker (she/her), a CGSHE trainee and PhD student in UBC’s Faculty of Medicine, said that despite increased job opportunities, “women and gender diverse people face a multitude of barriers to advancing their career, causing fewer of us to earn degrees in STEM fields.” Thaker said that she knows from personal experience how gender stereotypes, lack of high-profile assignments and no access to informal networks combine to discourage the participation of women and gender diverse people in STEM.
“It would be transformational to have women and gender diverse people in positions of power and across all aspects of research, including teaching, and for educational and research institutions to prioritize the perspectives and needs of women, gender diverse, and other intersecting identities.”
Ohtsuka pointed to the university itself as presenting a structural barrier for women and gender diverse people studying in the STEM disciplines. “The university environment is not built by or for us, the systems and processes are not designed to meet our needs, and there is a glaring lack of peers, mentors and role models to support the journey through academia.” Underrepresentation in the classroom creates a “gendered impact and reinforces the idea that woman aren’t valued in these fields,” they continued.
The antidote to many of the obstacles within science and research is representation. “It would be transformational to have women and gender diverse people in positions of power and across all aspects of research, including teaching, and for educational and research institutions to prioritize the perspectives and needs of women, gender diverse, and other intersecting identities,” said Ohtsuka. This would go a long way to reinventing STEM as inclusive and welcoming, Thaker added: “It can be intimidating not to see yourself reflected in a space. You don’t know what obstacles you might face.”
Representation is key to making research both accessible and actionable, Perry-Ens noted. “By acknowledging and creating space for the diversity and uniqueness of experiences, identities, and cultures, and then weaving this into the research that is being conducted, we can create research that acknowledges the existing health gaps while also focusing on actions that are oriented to help close the gaps.”
“By acknowledging and creating space for the diversity and uniqueness of experiences, identities and cultures, and then weaving this into the research that is being conducted, we can create research that acknowledges the existing health gaps while also focusing on actions that are oriented to help close the gaps.”
Perry-Ens aims to do just that with their graduate work investigating cultural health and safety as well as access to sexual and reproductive health services amongst Indigenous women and Two-Spirit peoples. “As an Indigenous woman of mixed ancestry and a member of the Nisga’a nation, I want to amplify community voices and challenge harmful social structures and systems. I hope to support the creation of space for Indigenous ways of knowing, experiences, and Indigenous strength in the health field and in health research.”
Alice Murage (she/her), Research Fellow at CGSHE and Faculty of Health Sciences at SFU, believes research has a lot to benefit from equitable representation and inclusion, “from the kinds of questions being asked, research methods being used, theoretical frameworks being developed, to moving research from academia to policy. That’s why in her work, which focuses on the experiences of recent immigrant women working in the food and accommodation industry, she strives to centre marginalized voices.
Thaker also approaches her graduate research through the lens of gender and sexual health equity, exploring intersecting forms of discrimination that affect access to oral health care in women living with HIV, with the goal of addressing systemic inequities and advancing trauma-informed care. “Many dentists aren’t even aware of trauma-informed care, or of the negative impact of HIV-related stigma on their patients. I want to change that.” Ohtsuka sees her research into gender-based violence and trauma- and violence-informed practice as part of the evolution of STEM. “There’s a shift away from the hard science doctrine that has dominated STEM and public health toward a more holistic perspective of health and health care systems. It takes time but I am excited to see other voices and types of research become more valued.”