By: Shruti Ramesh – WGEN Contributor
As a woman in academic spaces, something that is too uncommon is the presence of women who look like me and whose names sound like mine.
It’s not that these women aren’t out there. At McMaster alone, we have women of colour who are competitive in their fields across numerous disciplines. The caveat is that spaces meant to promote positive representation for women in academia, in politics and in leadership run the risk of not adequately representing and supporting the communities they are supposed to.
An upcoming event in the McMaster community is the International Women in Science Day Conference to be hosted on Feb. 11. The purpose of the conference is to bring female-identifying science students and faculty together to “empower one another, and engage in discussion about what it means to be a woman in science”.
Upon speaking with a member of their executive and reviewing their materials, we had an overall positive impression of the team and the goals they set out to achieve with running this event. Of particular interest is the structure of the conference. It is divided into the past, the present and the future in order to chart the trajectory of the role women have played and continue to play in the field. The keynotes, panelists and workshops bring together women from different academic backgrounds to give prospective attendees a holistic perspective about what a career in science could look like and the narratives of lived experience that accompany such a career.
With this in mind, there is one facet of the conference that is important to examine further. Looking at the lineup of panelists and speakers leaves one with the impression that women in science are almost exclusively white. 11 of the 12 panelists and both keynote speakers are white women. We’d like to acknowledge that this was not entirely in the hands of the IWISCI executive team. When planning an event with speakers, you are limited by who agrees to participate and the recruitment process can be a difficult task.
Looking at the lineup of panelists and speakers leaves one with the impression that women in science are almost exclusively white.
The executives did reach out to women from diverse backgrounds in keeping with the focus on identity and interplay of intersectionality that is central to the event. However, when over 92 per cent of the space taken up by panelists and speakers is filled with white voices, it is clear more needs to be done.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the aims of this event. The narrative of women facing ongoing obstacles pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math fields is one that continues to repeat itself, and remains a valuable conversation. Further, it is evident the care the executive team has put into giving women avenues to share their experiences and learn from each other. It is still important to be mindful that when labeling a space as intersectional, it naturally calls attention to gaps in representation. The voices missing from many conversations about women’s experiences speak to the bigger picture. It reinforces that despite progress, there is a need to continue working to ensure feminist and academic spaces alike are inclusive in the face of systemic barriers.
I take myself back to my first Chem 1A03 lecture in September 2013. If I were to look around, I would see black and Indigenous women, racialized women and white women as well. Amidst the crowd I could be certain there would be women who looked like me and whose names sounded like mine. Moving forward, in creating spaces for equity-seeking communities, we need to be more intentional. We need to give women in all fields of the future the representation they deserve.