Dr. Mona Nemer
Chief Science Advisor of Canada
Building Women’s Partnerships in the Care Economy: Supporting Business Women in STEM
Embassy of Canada
April 2, 2019
Check Against Delivery
Good morning everyone. Thank you for having me with you for this extraordinary day. I’m happy to be here.
The topic of “The Caring Society” is very timely for several reasons, not least of which is that our societies are aging. I have just returned from a meeting of the Japanese Circulation Society—20,000 researchers, clinicians and health care workers from around the world discussing the latest in cardiovascular health. Thanks to research and innovation, we have turned many acute diseases into chronic ones. These are great advancements, but we still have great need for therapies, medical devices, and health care in general. So this is an important area for businesses and for societies.
So far this morning, we have heard some interesting and inspiring remarks from Ailish [Campbell] and the Honourable Minister [Seiko] Noda, and there is definitely a common theme running through these discussions—namely, better support for women’s advancement leads to better societies as a whole.
What we need to consider further is that fostering diverse, innovative societies means promoting women throughout the entire innovation ecosystem, and enabling collaboration and network-building.
This is what I would like to talk to you about this morning—specifically, three main points:
- Supporting business women in STEM means supporting women throughout the entire innovation pipeline, from basic research to commercialization.
- Promoting women’s advancement means addressing systemic barriers at the organizational level and supporting professional development at the individual level.
- Empowering women as innovators depends on cross-pollination of ideas, collaboration, and community-building across sectors and disciplines.
Let me begin by asking the business people in the room: How much does your business rely on science and innovation?
The answer depends on the nature of your business, of course, but I think we call all agree that now, more than ever, science is recognized as the engine of our social and economic progress.
Governments around the world are recognizing the importance of science for policy. Businesses recognize the importance of good research for new technologies. But how often is it women who are being elevated to leadership positions in organizations—both scientific organizations and in businesses? Even though all studies show that diversity is linked to more successful organizations.
If we want to support women in business, particularly in STEM fields, we need to take a system-wide approach and assess where women need to be supported along the whole research-to-innovation pipeline.
Because innovation starts with research.
In other words, by promoting the participation and advancement of women in the STEM disciplines, we open opportunities for women as entrepreneurs, and as institutional and industry leaders, and we support their success by ensuring they have access to a diverse workforce.
It’s not enough to address just the challenges at the business end. We need to think more holistically about building environments where women’s creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial capacities can be nourished.
This means starting at the level of fundamental research where ideas are born, where hypotheses are tested, and where future scientists and innovators are trained.
We know that even at this early stage, women are already disadvantaged.
They are underrepresented in many STEM fields, though not as much in the health sciences.
Women are funded less frequently and at lower dollar amounts, as recently reported by The Lancet.
Women are often passed over for promotion or tenure. That means being decidedly underrepresented in leadership positions.
These issues are complex and while we’ve started to address some of them, progress is slow.
So how do organizations create change? One way is by providing training to sensitize staff to both unconscious bias and behavioural differences between men and women.
We need to stop assuming it is women who need to change. Mentoring and coaching and women’s leadership conferences are all very important, but meaningful, sustainable change won’t happen until we have buy-in from organizational leaders—that is, men. This culture shift needs both top-down and bottom-up approaches.
Many organizations fail to consider that men’s and women's career paths can be very different. Women’s careers are often non-linear. This needs to be recognized and addressed.
So how can we rethink the metrics by which we measure success?
To start, hiring practices need to reconsider the weight that is placed on the leadership trajectory as an indicator of job preparedness and suitability.
Consideration should be given to achievements—NOT previous positions held.
If women are required to have been the chair of a department, then dean of a faculty or a vice-president of a university before being considered for the presidency of an institution—we will not succeed at diversifying the leadership of our institutions.
Boards and hiring committees should be reminded of that.
In both the private sector and academia, we find that managers tend to identify high-potential leaders when candidates are in their 30s. Yet this policy often completely eliminates women from the talent pipeline because many have children around this age. In their 40s, when many women refocus on their careers, it is often too late.
In Canada, the government has just committed to expanding paid parental leave coverage from six months to 12 months for students and postdoctoral fellows who receive federal funding. This is a step in the right direction, but there is still much more to do.
A recent studyFootnote 1 published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) compared STEM career trajectories, and reported that nearly half of women do not return to fulltime STEM employment after having their first child. This stunning statistic provides strong evidence that we also need to support women returning to work.
We have a tendency to talk about women as a minority in many sectors, and that is true. But in most societies, including both Japan and Canada, women make up more than half of the populations. Women are in fact the majority. Imagine what creativity, innovations, and discoveries we are missing out on if women of working age are not fully engaged in the labour force.
Our two countries are both committed to increasing and improving women’s participation in the labour market and I believe we have real opportunities here to promote women entrepreneurs, particularly in the healthcare economy sectors.
Health science is one of the STEM disciplines where women are relatively well-represented. There is a lot of room for growth for women entrepreneurs here.
That’s why it is particularly important for women-led businesses to take up space in the health sector, especially for services that cater to women’s health.
But this also means we need to make sure women-led businesses have access to investment dollars.
In Canada, only 13% of women-owed businesses are STEM-related, and they report having much more difficulty attracting investment than men have.
Why? Maybe it’s because only 14% of partners at Canadian venture capital firms are women. We need to do better there too.
In Canada, our government recently (October 2018) announced significant amount of funding (CDN $2 billion) for women’s entrepreneurship. It’s part of a strategy seeking to double the number of women-owned businesses by 2025. It will provide women with access to financing, talent, networks and expertise. This strategy of advancing gender equality in Canada has the potential to significantly (CDN$150 billion) increase our GDP over the next 7 years.
The fact is women represent tremendous potential for any economy. And from my own experience, I can tell you that there is tremendous opportunity for women entrepreneurs in the health sector—especially in technologies that support healthy aging.
It is through strong and supportive communities that we can best promote established and emerging women leaders.
So I encourage you all to dream big and work collaboratively.
To the industry and government representatives who are here today, I encourage you to invest heavily in women—not just in funding, but also in efforts to create more equitable work environments.
Because gender equity in science is not only a matter of human rights—it is critical for social development and it is vital to produpcing the best research.
And the best research is the starting point for the most innovative solutions to global challenges.
Thank you. I look forward to continued discussions with you throughout the day and into the future.