Promoting diversity in STEM


Speaking Notes

Dr. Mona Nemer
Chief Science Advisor of Canada

Gender Summit
Montréal, Québec
November 7, 2017

Check Against Delivery

Bonjour tout le monde. Good morning everyone.

Thank you, Mario for the introduction, and congratulations to you and Rémi, and to all the organizers on the success of this conference.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share with you some observations and reflections from my own career as a scientist, a professor and an academic executive. I hope that they provide some insight for further reflection and help to fuel the panel discussions throughout the day.

Women's participation and promotion is a subject that concerns me deeply. The importance of increased women's participation in STEM is well documented.

Yet, study after study depicts the disappointingly slow progress of women's participation in certain STEM fields and the persistent low number of women in academic leadership.

Rather than summarizing these studies—which I am sure will be discussed by the expert panels later today—I'd like to provide some personal perspectives.

As a woman in STEM, I certainly have not been immune to the barriers that women face and must overcome in order to enjoy successful and fulfilling careers in STEM.

I have had years to reflect on these issues, and I've developed more than a few ideas on how this situation is perpetuated.

So what I'm sharing with you today covers three main points:

One: Using the same thinking and approaches—including criteria, metrics, policies and procedures for hiring and recognition at all levels—will not lead to change.

In other words, if you always follow the same recipe, don't be surprised if the results are always the same. I will share some examples later.

Two: Increasing the number and impact of women and other members of underrepresented groups in STEM requires concerted efforts of our entire society—including governments, scientific organizations, research granting agencies and educational institutions.

Three: Mentorship and role models matter.

I will start with this last point because it is so important and because to reach it, we have to address the first two.

Mentors and role models were instrumental to me throughout my career. They helped guide my personal and professional development.

When I did my PhD in Chemistry at McGill, there were no female professors in a department of 40 or so.

I don't recall women giving talks at the department or at Chemistry meetings I attended.

Although I most definitely wanted to have a career in research, it was not evident at all that this could be within an academic setting.

I therefore opted for industry first.

I am glad that there are more women Chemistry profs in our universities these days. It matters, but we still have some ways to go.

Just to be clear, I am very grateful to all the male mentors that I had throughout my career.

And it is also a point I want to make that when we talk about mentorship, it is inclusive of everyone. Men must also step up and do their part.

But having a female role model had an immense impact on my personal and professional life.

Before meeting Nicole LeDouarin, an outstanding French biologist and a mother with successful daughters, I did not think that having a significant scientific career and a family were compatible objectives.

I met Nicole in Montréal as I was completing my postdoctoral training. She was an invited speaker and a group of us trainees got to meet her. She is an award winning developmental biologist who made pioneering contributions to neuroscience. She talks passionately about science and emotionally about her children and grandchildren, just like any ordinary mother.

I am so grateful for having met her and for her inspiring friendship and mentorship.

I am humbled when young women tell me that I am a role model for them. It's a huge responsibility and I am energized knowing that what I do matters to them.

Almost 30 years after meeting my role model, I find myself discussing the same questions with them.

Science and family are not mutually exclusive for men, why should they be for women.

What we project matters. And we have to make sure that our policies, procedures and approaches support the development and promotion of role models in all areas of STEM.

By the way—lumping maternity and family leave with sick leave in our policies may not be ideal: After all, maternity is not a disease.

Having inspiring role models is paramount. We must therefore ensure that our public and institutional policies allow them to develop and be promoted in all areas of science and technology.

This brings me to my main point, which is the need for a systematic approach to supporting increased diversity.

We have a charter of rights and laws that prohibit discrimination. And universities are embracing diversity.

The question is why is it taking so long to change the landscape?

Is it possible that gender and culture differences are not accounted for in our decision-making processes such as those involved in hiring, awards and fellowships?

Take the example of the prestigious Canada Vanier graduate scholarships, intended to attract more bright international students to Canada.

In addition to academic excellence, the criteria include evidence of leadership, social engagement and previous research credentials.

As someone who grew up in Lebanon, I can tell you that the opportunities for science and engineering students to engage in research and social leadership is vastly different in different countries and cultures.

By using our usual norms or indicators of excellence, we unconsciously favour certain groups.

So, to avoid cloning ourselves, we need diverse perspectives and sensitivities at the very concept stage of our programs.

I talked of the importance of mentorship. Mentorship is not only at the level of the number of students we supervise.

Some grant evaluations take into account the number of students a researcher has trained.

But mentorship cannot be reduced to an accounting exercise of degrees granted.

By the same token, research excellence cannot be measured by the number of talks given around the world.

This is neither family-friendly nor a measure of impact nowadays when scientific papers and data are readily searchable and available online. And when you can skype anybody in the world…

How we describe and promote our achievements is also very different across cultures and genders. Propensity to bragging too…

I recall several instances of female colleagues who declined being put forward for an award, but rarely has a male colleague shown such modesty when invited for similar nominations.

I also recall cases of women and visible minorities whose successful nomination to prestigious honours only occurred after their applications were rewritten to enhance bragging.

I reckon that the human factor will always be present in any evaluation system, but getting recognized and promoted in STEM must remain a scientifically based exercise—not an invitation for exaggeration, credential inflation and for perpetuating cultural biases.

That is why diversity training and diverse committees are essential for fair evaluations and outcomes.

Needless to say that such attention to diversity becomes even more critical for multidisciplinary committees... and women are often disproportionately present in new interdisciplinary fields. A few examples are biomedical engineering, environmental sciences, and behavioural neurosciences.

My last point is regarding women in academic leadership.

Here too, our hiring practices need to take into account the weight that we place on the so-called leadership trajectory as an indicator of job preparedness and suitability. After all, they have led to the present situation that we want to fix.

Consideration should be given to achievements—NOT positions held, which favour careerists and those who have been in the system for over 20 years. That means no change for decades.

We need to think and look outside the box.

Women, and members of other underrepresented groups, often have non-traditional career paths.

If we require them to have been Chair of a department, Vice-Dean, Dean or Vice-President before being considered for the presidency of a university, a research organization or granting council—positions that still involve mostly male-dominated processes—we will not succeed at diversifying the leadership of our institutions.

Boards and hiring committees should be reminded of that.

Every now and then, we see enlightened and courageous leaders who defy convention and make inspiring choices.

I have benefited from the vision and wisdom of such individuals and thank them for giving me incredible opportunities.

Sadly, and judging from the numbers in front of us, we still have some ways to go.

In closing, I would ask that we all give some serious thought and reflection to the ways in which we might more quickly bring about a system that supports all of us—a system that enables the best, regardless of gender, ethnicity and culture, to participate fully in the advancement of science and society.

Together, we will get there. Thank you.