Christina Vietinghoff and Mary Kate MacDonald
In terms of gender equality, McMaster is lagging behind the times. Women make up less than a third of McMaster’s tenured faculty, putting the university below the national average. As an institution renowned for its scientific exploits, McMaster employment practices are not as cutting-edge with only 13 percent of engineering faculty and 25 percent of science faculty being female.
We met with four women in science, technology, engineering and math to discuss their research and experiences as women leaders in STEM. These four professors represent only a fraction of McMaster’s female professors but are leaders in a their male-dominated fields. In addition to their academic contributions, these professors serve as inspiring examples for young women contemplating future careers as scientists or engineers. While their experiences as women at McMaster differ, they unanimously agree that female undergraduates in STEM who are passionate about it should consider pursuing graduate studies.
While many children are told to reach for the stars, Laura Parker of the Department of Physics and Astronomy is living this dream as an adult. Parker studies the evolution of galaxies as an observational astrophysicist. Her research focuses on the distribution of dark matter in galaxies, and also maps out the distortion caused by distant galaxies.
“I consider myself really lucky… [I] get to address some of the most interesting questions that everyone asks themselves.”
Parker came to McMaster through a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council government program called the University Faculty Awards which aimed to set women and indigenous people for tenure track or tenured positions within science and engineering. The program has since been cancelled, but Parker firmly believes these types of measures are necessary to help overcome the unintended bias hiring committees may have because of the amount of men occupying senior positions.
Parker thinks that hiring more women to these senior positions is one of the best ways to encourage more undergraduate female students to pursue a career in STEM fields as seeing their peers taking on significant roles can be inspiring. Parker’s advice to undergraduates is to find a mentor.
“If you’re a female undergraduate interested in STEM, talk to female faculty members and graduates.”
She has found McMaster to be a very supportive environment, but says that governments need to be equally involved.
“It’s great that McMaster has [gender equity] on the radar, but I would like to also see this at the provincial and federal level.”
When asked how she finds working at McMaster, Parker says having a supportive department has meant she’s never felt disadvantaged in any way.
Yet, Parker still sees a need for more initiatives to recruit women. “We should have prestigious awards and chairs for women in STEM, having those really high flyer senior positions being filled by women in STEM would create those fantastic role models.”
Vera Chouinard is a professor at the school of Geography and Earth Sciences. whose work applies both science and social science. Her research focuses on processes of marginalization, and specifically on state policy, poverty, violence and inclusivity for people with disability. She has also completed extensive research on the experiences in time and space of people with bipolar disorder, female professors with disability in a Canadian context, issues from the perspective of people with disability in Guyana and the challenges of diversity in the Occupy Movement.
Chouinard is grateful to draw inspiration from a passionate network including other professors, graduate students and undergraduates, but she has also experienced several forms of discrimination, due to both her gender and her ability. This discrimination has emerged in forms of professional harassment and also the devaluation of her contributions to academia. These hindrances are a continuing issue, as Chouinard describes how the current protracted shutdown of the elevator, makes access to her office difficult.
In fact, census data shows that intersecting identities, such as race, ability, sexuality and class can increase the barriers for women to become tenured academics. Moreover, the wage gap is even more pronounced for women of colour, which has led universities like McGill, Waterloo and Western to complete pay equity studies and take proactive measures to address these problems.
Being the sole female in the department of geography, Chouinard feels that these effects have been augmented at times. Chouinard urges the upcoming generation of female scientists to embrace collectivity and recognition of the accomplishments of diverse women in science.
Identifying the systemic hindrances faced by female faculty members is the first step in bridging the disparity between men and women in science according to Chouinard, who notes that the contributions of women to research and pedagogy get insufficient recognition.
Neslihan Dogan grew up in Turkey and completed her Bachelors in Chemical Engineering at the Yıldız Technical University in İstanbul. She then moved to Australia where she completed her Masters and PhD with a thesis on steelmaking. Dogan is an expert in pyrometallurgy, which involves working with steel at extremely high temperatures. McMaster is lucky to have recruited her to Hamilton, as the department was seeking someone with this specific area of expertise since 2008.
Dogan is the first female faculty member in Materials Science. In her first year at the university, the faculty grew to include two other women. Dogan has found it to be a supportive environment and says that it doesn’t matter if you are a woman, provided you are enthusiastic and driven.
“If you are passionate, doors will open for you”.
Dogan is passionate about her research because of its dynamic nature. Her research has interesting environmental implications for creating more sustainable and less wasteful methods of steel production. Moreover, because of McMaster’s unique industry relationship, Dogan gets to work directly with industry members to determine what research is most practical.
She said she has never felt being a woman was a disadvantage even when interacting within the industry, adding that young male researchers face similar scrutiny from those who have been in the field for a long time. Although people are sometimes surprised she is a women expert in steelmaking, she says that when they see her curiosity and drive, they quickly overcome their surprise. Given how much Dogan has accomplished at such a young age, it will be exciting to watch what she gets up to next as the new US Endowed Steel Chair in Sustainable Steel Production at McMaster.
Gillian Goward hails from the McMaster Chemistry Department and researches ion dynamics. Using a technique much like that used in MRI, Goward and her research team study the movement of lithium ions and protons in order to enhance electrochemical performance in batteries and fuel cells.
Her research is based on the inorganic, physical and polymer chemistry that undergraduate science students learn in their early careers as chemists or chemical engineers. Goward notes that there are equal numbers of bright and dedicated undergraduate and graduate women in chemistry as there are men.
Gender has not posed a significant barrier in Goward’s experience. While occasionally being the token women on committees, she says it is becoming a less frequent occurrence as more women enter chemistry and the physical sciences. Before deciding whether to pursue a faculty position, she recommends students determine that they are truly passionate about what they study, learn as much as they can, and see where it takes them.
Although over half of undergraduate scientists are now women, Goward speculates there are two possible reasons why there are still fewer women in chemistry and physical science at higher levels. One is the archaic notion that the nature of women causes them to seek a work-life balance that faculty positions complicate. However, Goward has two children and a husband and explains that it’s possible to make it work. Evidence suggests that because women are more likely to have mid career interruptions (maternity leave), this contributes to the persistent wage gap. Although according to the Canadian Association of University Teachers data, the gender wage gap amongst academics is actually not as bad as the national average but at the higher levels of academia, the gap between men and women’s salaries increases.
Goward believes another reasons why there are fewer women is because the Ontario curriculum makes it acceptable for young people to become disinterested in math. With physics no longer mandatory, and an accepted distaste for math and physics, undergraduates are unequipped for further studies in the physical science, often seeking refuge in life sciences instead.
Goward encourages men to join the discussion on women in science, seeing that they are equally part of the solution. In final words of advice, Goward suggests finding role models, regardless of gender, who have a balance of career and personal life that you wish to emulate; to find fulfillment in every aspect of your life.