Addressing the gender gap in science at Ryerson

Man in pink shirt: Bryan Koivisto Panel (from left to right): Vicki Saunders, Lynda McCarthy, Leslie Bone, Michelle Lucas

RySciMatch panel (left to right): Vicki Saunders, Lynda McCarthy, Leslie Bone, Michelle Lucas (Jordan Mady/ Ryersonian Staff)

Ryerson researcher and professor Lynda McCarthy said she lacks a female role model in her scientific endeavours, even though she is in her 50s and has spent a lifetime in science.

“You are assigned (gender) roles as soon as you pop out of the womb,” she said. “But you know who’s bought into it? My generation who has said, ‘I’m going to allow that crap to happen.’”

McCarthy was speaking at a panel last Friday that focused on how to improve gender diversity in the field of science. She encouraged women to speak up and participate, and stressed the importance of having more women in the field.

It was organized by RySciMatch, a Faculty of Science mentoring initiative, which gathers students, professors and industry professionals together once a week to share ideas about a particular theme. Leadership and mentoring were the themes Friday. For women in science, these supports have been lacking.

The field of science has long been dominated by men. In Canada, there’s been progress made over the last 30 years in the proportion of women working in science and enrolling in post-secondary science programs. But it’s progress has been glacial and the issue is multi-faceted.  

While the number of female science students has increased by more than one-third in the last four years, proportional enrolment has barely changed. Women account for 39 per cent of students enrolled since the faculty was established in 2012.

Catherine Mavriplis, the chair for women in science for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, said the number of women enrolled in the faculty of science at Ryerson is strong but varies between programs.

For instance in 2014, full-time enrolment in computer science was made up of 93 per cent men.

Mavriplis said improvement starts with more female role models.

“We still hear people saying that their guidance counselor told them ‘engineering’s not for girls’,” she said. “Hearing that is quite frightening in 2016.”

Vicki Saunders, the founder of SheEO, an organization that provides female entrepreneurs with start-up finances, was also a panellist at the event. She said as little as four per cent of venture capital goes to women looking to build a business.

That inequality of investment, she said, applies to women participating in the sciences.

“We’re not a niche. We’re half the population,” Saunders said.

A 2013 Statistics Canada study concluded that despite equal gender aptitudes in math and science in high school, the balance doesn’t transfer to post-secondary programs. One reason, the study suggests, could be a lack of interest or little understand of what a career in science means.

RySci Infographic

Bryan Koivisto is an associate professor and researcher at Ryerson who studies plant sunlight absorption and its application as an alternative to solar panels. He said another way to get more women interested in science is to mould their curiosity when they’re young.

“If you think about the scientist, the archetype of a scientist is a person that has a system and pokes it and watches what happens,” Koivisto said. “Who does that better than someone from Grade 2 to Grade 6? They’re natural scientists. They’re asking questions all the time.”

RySciMatch program director and third-year biology student Aesha Patel, had no shortage of female role models growing up. Her grandmother was a nurse and her mom has a master’s of science.

”I (like science) because that’s what I was taught from a young age. And as much as my parents hated it, I was always really curious about things,” Patel said.

Many women studying in the field of science must also overcome imposter syndrome, an internal feeling of inadequacy and self-doubt not based in reality which can lead to self-isolation while conducting group work.

“We don’t want to sound like we’re whining … and speaking up makes us uncomfortable,” said third-year biomedical student Tara Upshaw in reference to her experience with imposter syndrome.

“So, how do we get past that? How do we engage productively in a way that’s not inflammatory? It’s a co-operative learning process.”

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