Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Hockey or STEM?

The below is a guest post written by Dr. Jo-Anne Brown. Dr. Brown is a radio astronomer and faculty member in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, cross-appointed to Natural Sciences, at the University of Calgary. 

Earlier this week I posted a Maclean's article on my FB page about the statistics of women in STEM, particularly in Canada. The article described the exodus of women out of careers in science as “death by a thousand cuts”, and identified a number of areas, including major award recipients, where women were vastly under-represented. One comment I received from a friend (and former student) was, “If 19% of first year [engineering] students are female, and 12% [of professional engineers] are female, that's of course a problem (both the low initial enrolment and the attrition). But if 18% of the [Canadian Science and Engineering] Hall of Famers and 28% of the Canada Research Chairs are women, wouldn't this indicate over-representation based on the percentage of women in STEM? ... How do we reconcile these numbers?”

I have an idea about this – but first, let me tell you a story.

Three weeks ago, I went to my hometown of Lethbridge, Alberta, to give a colloquium at the university there. While wandering the halls before my talk, I struck up a conversation with a member of the department, whom I’ll call ‘Kate’. It turns out Kate’s 15 year-old daughter is the only girl on the boys minor-league hockey team in the city. I asked Kate how her daughter got along with the boys, and how they treated her.

According to Kate, her daughter body checks as well as any boy on her team. Apparently this is very confusing for boys on opposing teams, since they don’t quite know how to respond (How about by playing the game? … but I digress). “That’s funny”, I said, “but how do the boys treat her that are on her team?” After some hesitation, Kate’s response was this: Some of the boys are quite supportive, though the whole ‘change room thing’ is difficult (I didn’t ask). However, many boys have questioned her placement on the team because she is not the best on the team – even though she is well above the median level. “She is too good to play on the girl’s team”, said Kate, “She won’t improve if she is made to play there, and the other girls resent her because she is so much better than they are.” And yet, no one questions why the lowest ranked boy is on the team. 

Therein lies the problem, I think. It seems even in hockey, women have to be better than all of the men to be accepted by (most of) the other men.

Before returning to the original question, I have one more story.

Last week was our department’s “unit review”. One topic brought up was our department’s diversity (or rather, lack thereof). Out of a faculty compliment of 25, only 2 are women, and both of those are cross-appointed with other departments, so in some sense, it is more like 1 out of 25 are women. But either way you choose to look at it, less than 10% are women.

One of the external reviewers argued that women are hard to hire because there are so few available. The other reviewer shook her head and said, “That is the golden-girl syndrome. There will be 1 or 2 women that graduate in a given year, who are clearly top-of-the-top. They will get multiple job offers, and have their pick of where they want to go. But… woman number 3, won’t see a single offer, because woman number 3, is not ‘at the very top’, and therefore she is not above many of the men applying for the same job.”

If we want to improve diversity, diversity has to be the priority. Otherwise, just ‘picking the best’ will never result in change. There are too many studies and examples of unconscious bias (as discussed here and here) where arguments can be made to pick a man. Furthermore, when given the choice, the golden girls won’t necessarily pick Calgary as their preferred destination, so we have to allow for the possibility of choosing woman number 3, provided, of course, that she is above ‘the line’, where ‘the line’ is clearly and a priori defined to be the same for men and women. If the lowest ranked man on a hockey team (or in a faculty) is not made to feel bad for being part of the team, the same should be true for a woman.

So, how do we reconcile the numbers? Easy – we currently have a system that only accepts women that are so far above ‘the line’ that they can’t be ignored (“The Imitation Game” demonstrated this nicely). I would therefore argue that the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame, whose purpose is to “honour individuals whose outstanding scientific or technological achievements have had long term implications for Canadians”, is an even worse representation of the actual quality of women in STEM. (Canada is not unique in this; I recently learned that Lise Meitner was nominated 12 times for a Nobel Prize and never won.)

As for the Canada Research Chair (CRC) statistic, this is the only number that I have a vague sense of satisfaction with. The CRC program was created in 2000 as part of a national strategy to make Canada one of the world’s top countries in research and development by establishing research professorships in eligible degree-granting institutions.  Perhaps the CRC statistic indicates that the demographics are indeed better for the younger generation (which the CRC program tends to target) than the averages for professors across the board? Of course, it could also have something to do with the program’s commitment to non-discrimination and employment equity, On the other hand, the fact that the CRC program extends beyond just science and engineering into health sciences, humanities, and social sciences, where the fraction of women is greater, potentially leads back around to the question of why the CRC statistic is lower than one might expect. Regardless, if the stats for STEM women at all levels (undergrads, grads, postdocs, faculty) were around the level of women with CRCs (28%), I think STEM would be on track. Princeton recognized the value in this; why shouldn’t we do the same in Canada?