All-female panel reflects on challenges facing women and minorities in science

“We are in a vicious circle and we need to get out of it. Those in charge need to be listening.”

– Dr. Mona Nemer

An all-female panel of four Faculty of Medicine researchers took the stage at RGN last Wednesday to discuss the challenges facing women and minorities in science and academia.

Panellists were invited to share their personal observations, with each citing the challenges they have faced and insights gained, as well as what they perceive as contributing to inequity in the sciences and their suggestions for moving the conversation forward. The following are some highlights from that panel discussion.

Dr. Mona Nemer1 prefaced her presentation by referencing studies showing the importance of women participating in science: “yet we find ourselves with the same low rate of participation of women and underrepresented groups.” She explained that contributing to this is that current evaluation metrics do not take into account the diverse experiences of many talented individuals. Women and other underrepresented groups often have non-linear career paths; so rather than evaluating suitability for leadership based on a traditional trajectory and an individual’s past position held, she said, recruiters should instead consider one’s achievements. Meanwhile, applicants must make more of an effort to showcase how achievements differ across cultures and genders; and she also encouraged a “healthy level of bragging.” Dr. Nemer also shared with the audience that as a young scientist she thought of having a family and a career as mutually exclusive until she met a female role model that had both, thereby underscoring the importance of role models and mentorship.

Dr. Marie-Hélène Roy-Gagnon2 also emphasized the value of role models and mentorship. She said that an absence of role models can be a barrier for careers, and that a lack of early exposure to possible scientific careers had initially deterred her from the field. As a possible solution, Dr. Roy-Gagnon proposed the implementation of “systems that reward and support mentorship.” She also discussed the importance of supporting, and not discriminating against, women who have family obligations. Finally, she noted the importance of making academia a safe space for all regardless of sexual orientation, by raising awareness and visibility.

Larissa Shamseer3 highlighted the importance of self-advocacy, particularly for young women feeling conflicted about asserting themselves. She felt at times she was not valued or treated as she should have been, but soon realized the necessity of speaking up. She stressed the value of mentors providing encouragement to mentees and putting them forward for opportunities; this helps mentees to build confidence in their scientific skills and in presenting to superiors, and to overcome feelings of inadequacy. Her own mentor has empowered her numerous times to take particular situations into her own hands—with successful results.

Dr. Kristin Baetz4 stressed the value of networking for career advancement. Dr. Baetz’s focus, however, was on what she called the systematic bias when it comes to judging excellence in men versus women. She described her encouragement of those in decision-making positions to dive into people’s CVs and find the excellence in women. That deeper exploration sometimes points to a different individual from the initial choice. “I’ve realized there are so many things going wrong,” Dr. Baetz said. “So, I’ve taken an aggressive stance—because things like this should not happen.”

Opening the floor to questions triggered a lively discussion, covering tips for finding success as a first-generation Canadian; becoming a forceful voice in a roomful of voices; progress in making careers in science more accessible; and much advice from the experienced panel.

All agreed that the event served as a valuable exercise for the sharing of ideas, with the hope that the discussion would continue after the event.

“We are in a vicious circle and we need to get out of it. There is not one way to do it, but many ways; everybody must be involved, and put pressure,” said Dr. Nemer. “Those in charge need to be listening. It’s a collective effort.”

This panel discussion was organized by the BMI Graduate Student Association and the Office of Equity, Diversity and Gender Issues. Director of the latter is Dr. Catherine Tsilfidis, associate professor in the Departments of Ophthalmology and Cellular and Molecular Medicine, who is passionate about promoting the advancement of women in science. The Office is currently helping to create a mentoring program for female post-doctoral fellows in the basic sciences, and recently began an LGBTQ mentoring program for trainees within the Faculty of Medicine.

Panel participants:

1Dr. Mona Nemer, Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor

2Dr. Marie-Hélène Roy-Gagnon, School of Epidemiology and Public Health

3Larissa Shamseer, PhD Candidate, School of Epidemiology and Public Health; School of Pharmacy (University of Maryland, Baltimore)

4Dr. Kristin Baetz, Director of the Ottawa Institute of Systems Biology, Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology

Main photo credit: Reuben Moyler

Dr. Mona Nemer, Larissa Shamseer, Dr. Marie-Hélène Roy-Gagnon and Dr. Kristin Baetz sitting at a table.

Dr. Mona Nemer, Larissa Shamseer, Dr. Marie-Hélène Roy-Gagnon and Dr. Kristin Baetz shared advice and their experiences with the audience last Wednesday.

Photo credit : Chonglu Huang


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