Gender Summit 11 – Embracing Pluralism and Thriving through Diversity: a report from Liette Vasseur

Gender Summit 11 – Embracing Pluralism and Thriving through Diversity – Shaping Science and Innovation, – Montreal, Canada – November 6–8, 2017

I had the opportunity to be invited to the Gender Summit in Montreal to participate in a panel on “Best Practices: Global Perspectives on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in STEM”, which was organized by Maryse Lassonde, Scientific Director, Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologie (FRQNT) and President, Royal Society of Canada. At the same time, I was representing the Canadian Commission for UNESCO for the reception celebrating the recipients of the L’Oreal Canada for Women in Science prizes.

The Summit was quite interesting in many respects. The Minister of Science, Hon. Kirsty Duncan, opened the summit as a keynote with Elise Allan from Engineers Canada. The Minister emphasized the challenges not only for women but also LGBTQ peoples to succeed in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) professions. She has added gender equity and cultural diversity in her portfolio.

It is easy to understand why. In 2014 in Canada, 36 percent of junior-level research positions were filled by women. This percentage drops to 16 percent for senior-level positions. And, of the nineteen Canada Excellence Research Chair holders in 2014, only one (5.3 percent) was a woman. For this reason, all universities in Canada must have their diversity equity plan submitted by December 2017 and, if not, the minister may withhold applications or funding of any new chair.

Allan mentioned the importance of women doing research as well as taking in consideration women in research. New innovations, such as car safety airbags, that are not tested on women can lead to mortality and greater injuries. This is why Engineers Canada has launched its program 30% by 2030 to increase the number of women engineers in Canada.

Shohini Ghouse, Professor, Physics and Computer Science and Director of the Centre for Women in Science (WinS) at Wilfrid Laurier University was the facilitator of the session and made a very important observation: there are zero black women in physics in Canada!

Many people were quite inspiring and demonstrated the importance to discuss these issues in public. Some organizations are moving forward such as American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS), which hosts conferences for LGBTQ faculty members and students to meet and recharge, as explained by Kei Koizumi, visiting scholar, AAAS.

Albert McLeod, True Spirit Cree, talked about the history of indigenous LGBTQ/Two spirit people in Canada. Because of the residential schools and the Hudson Bay Company, the linkage of indigenous peoples with their mothers was broken. This also restricted the possibility for people to be two spirited. He is now trying to reach out to LGBTQ indigenous people as they are often isolated, leading to a high level of suicide.

Vanessa Raponi, EngiQueers Canada, McMaster University, was a strong speaker and person who discussed how changing the mentality of engineering schools can help enhance diversity. She finished her presentation by reading a poem that made a huge impact… she herself has had several challenges.

Some other speakers have shown how some organizations are really trying to make a difference, not only in science but also, and importantly, in leadership roles. Yves Desjardins, CEO President of Via Rail, explained how he has been able to reach the 30% of women in leadership positions at Via Rail and why he is trying to move to 50%. In 2010, the board of directors was composed of 2 women and 10 men while now it comprises of 6 women and 5 men. To get there, he is forcing his team to always ensure that there are at least a few women who are interviewed for any new position. As he stated, we should “not only talk about it but it needs to be enforced. You have to stay on the course. If not, old habits creep back”.

There were many more presentations and discussions that demonstrated the need to stop just talking about it. There was a clear message that actions are needed and that all organizations should be moving ahead on this. As Ghouse argued, “Implicit bias still exists because of the structure that is more homosocial such as lower salary, hiring processes, etc. We need to continue gathering data in a desegregated way.” This is one step that she is taking at Wilfrid Laurier.

How are we doing at Brock in these matters? Have we started gathering these data? What actions have been taken? We still need to reflect on these matters.

– Liette Vasseur


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