Women in science: a fairy tale?

Author: Stacey Johnson, 06/04/13

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If you have read any of my previous blogs, you will know that I am not a scientist. From my bio, you will learn that I’m a communications professional, but it doesn’t state that I’m also the mother of two daughters. My almost 10-year-old says she wants to be a scientist when she grows up. Or a dance teacher, but I’m going to encourage her love of science and hope it sticks.

In my lifetime, girls have been actively encouraged to pursue careers in the categories of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and from my casual research, it appears that programs still abound to encourage such pursuits. In Canada, here is a very small sample of what exists:

  • Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST);
  • Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) has its Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering (CWSE) Program and it funds regional Chairs in Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario, the Prairies and British Columbia and Yukon regions;
  • Canadian Coalition of Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology (CCWESTT); and,
  • Many universities have their own Centres for Women in Science, such as this one at Wilfrid Laurier University and this one at the University of Toronto.

Governments, corporations, not-for-profit organizations and foundations like this one are making an effort to address the issues of low numbers and the unequal representation of women in senior leadership positions in science industries and academia.

The issue of women in science isn’t new, nor is it exclusive to Canada. It has been the subject of much discussion and speculation, and has been covered in depth from a variety of perspectives, as in this special section published by Nature or this article in the Guardian. So why am I blogging about it?

Because it’s 2013 and the problem still exists. PhD student Amanda Ali, in her insightful and troubling article for the University of Toronto’s (U of T) IMS Magazine entitled “Scientist by day, Mother by night – How the mommy track runs covertly parallel to the tenure track” (see pages 31-32), states that there is an increasing number of women earning undergraduate degrees in technical fields, but no corresponding increase in the proportion of female faculty. She interviews several female scientists at U of T who won’t publicly discuss the issue of work/life balance “for fear of ridicule.” They also won’t allow their names to be used in the article and although they will mentor female students one-on-one and offer advice regarding a career in science, they won’t do so in a group setting – something that would alleviate the logistical challenge of privately mentoring thousands of female students at U of T – or on the record out of a belief that their comments will “look unprofessional in press.”

This breakthrough study actually demonstrates that science faculty has a subtle bias against female science students, when it comes to hiring them.

I noticed something encouraging when I joined the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM): a lot of female scientists work here! Of 27 employees with science/engineering graduate degrees, 16 are female and there are mothers in the group. (Not all of the staff bios appear on CCRM’s website, so you’ll just have to trust my counting.)

When I asked some of these women why they chose to work at CCRM, the issue of family-work-life balance was a recurring theme as was a passion for doing research, but not in a purely academic setting. CCRM is a bit of a hybrid that falls between academia and industry, but seems to offer the best of both.

In the wider Canadian stem cell/regenerative medicine community, there are many highly successful women. Here are just a few:

Dr. Jane Aubin, an expert on mesenchymal stem cells and primitive progenitor populations in bone and bone marrow, is Chief Scientific Officer/Vice-President, Research at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) (and my former boss);

Dr. Janet Rossant’s research on mouse embryos led to the discovery of a novel placental stem cell type: the trophoblast, and she is Chief of Research at the SickKids Research Institute;

Dr. Connie Eaves, a world leader in hematopoietic stem cell biology, is Director and co-founder of the Terry Fox Laboratory and Vice President Research of the BC Cancer Agency;

Dr. Freda Miller, an expert on neural and dermal stem cells, neuronal growth, survival and apoptosis, is the Canada Research Chair in Developmental Neurobiology; and,

Dr. Molly Shoichet is an expert on the study of polymers for drug delivery and regeneration and she is the Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering.

Dr. Terry Thomas (bio is not online) is Senior Vice President of Research & Development at STEMCELL Technologies and co-inventor of 14 U.S. patents and has negotiated 96 license agreements; and,

Dr. Dolores Baksh, a University of Toronto graduate who moved to the U.S. to do her Postdoctoral Fellowship at the National Institutes of Health, is Director of Research & Development for Organogenesis Inc. and its Tissue Bank Director, responsible for cell banking operations for commercial products.

Does my little observation of the stem cell/regenerative medicine world in Canada prove that this cutting-edge type of medicine is also on the cutting-edge of gender politics or more welcoming or encouraging to females? Probably not. But when I read my daughter to sleep at night, in and amongst the stories about Marie Curie, I will also tell her about a wondrous world where women are researching stem cells to one day cure diseases and save lives.

Research cited:
Moss-Racusin C.A., Dovidio J.F., Brescoll V.L., Graham M.J. & Handelsman J. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109 (41) 16474-16479. DOI:

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Stacey Johnson

Stacey Johnson

For almost 20 years, Stacey has been providing strategic communications counsel to government, corporate, technology and health organizations. Prior to that, Stacey was at the CTV Television Network, first as a researcher, then as a story producer for “Goldhawk Fights Back,” a special ombudsman segment that aired weekly on the National News and Canada AM. Before joining CCRM as the Director, Communications and Marketing, Stacey was the Director of Communications for the Canadian Arthritis Network. Stacey is editor of Signals. You can follow Stacey on Twitter @msstaceyerin.
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One Response

  1. Stacey Johnson says:

    I just read an interview with Dr. Fiona Watt (King’s College London) that touched on the topic of women in science (http://www.stembook.org/node/2768 – it appears near the end of the post) and the UK has some interesting programs in place to support women going on maternity leave, etc. So does her institution. It’s worth including here.

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