Right Turn: Four STEM women to watch

Author: Stacey Johnson, 12/15/17


If I say the names Kirsty Duncan, Mona Nemer, Julie Payette and Molly Shoichet, what comes to mind?

There are many ways to answer that question, of course, but the answer I’m looking for is that they are all female scientists or engineers who hold significant posts in government with the ability to influence Canada’s science agenda.

The Honourable Kirsty Duncan is the federal Minister of Science. As of the September 2017 announcement, she is now working closely with Mona Nemer, the federal Chief Science Advisor. In Ontario, Molly Shoichet was recently named to that inaugural post. Finally, Governor General Julie Payette, already remarkable for being an astronaut, is the person who now carries out the Queen’s constitutional and ceremonial duties in Canada and globally. Being a passionate advocate for science, she has already stirred up controversy over her comments about climate change, evolution and medicine.

While Minister Duncan was appointed to her role in 2015, the others have all stepped into their positions in a four-month period (July to November 2017). For those who care about such things, this is quite amazing!

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was true to his word when he stated he would have gender equality in his cabinet. That type of leadership shouldn’t be remarkable in the 21st century, but we know it is.

For example, the federal government has outlined a plan to promote more women to Canadian boards because, in October 2014, only 20.8 per cent of corporate board positions at Canadian stock index companies were held by women, according to Catalyst. Catalyst, a “global non-profit working […] to build workplaces that work for women” also tracks women CEOs of the S&P 500. In January 2017, women held only 26 (5.2 per cent) of those positions, despite the fact people argue that women are more effective leaders than men.

Every woman knows there are barriers to advancement in the workplace. This 2015 Women Shaping Business study – and it looks at STEM* too – found that 71 per cent of working Canadian women are in roles below the management level. The study “also discovered that only five per cent of working Canadian women are employed in STEM fields, presenting a major inequality in these key areas for Canada’s future workforce and economy.” Also from the study:

  • More than three-quarters of working Canadian women believe there is a divide compared to men in the workplace when it comes to salaries, influence in making important decisions, promotions, and getting the best jobs, tasks or projects.
  • 42 per cent of working Canadian women believe they don’t obtain leadership positions because their employer fears a possible maternity leave.
  • 27 per cent of working Canadian women who are not in a STEM field might have pursued a career in these areas if they had had the right support or guidance.
  • Confidence is a problem with working Canadian women within STEM fields, with 28 per cent of those surveyed who work in STEM fields citing their personal confidence as the reason they can’t reach a leadership position – compared to only 21 per cent of all working Canadian women citing this same barrier.

The study sampled 1,005 working women (including 303 managers and executives).

This post isn’t going to solve these issues. It is intended to point out that perhaps change is happening, albeit slowly. Despite the STEM statistics above, I’ve noted in the past that the situation seems a little better in the stem cell/regenerative medicine community. At least female leaders in this community receive significant accolades for their accomplishments. Maybe my perspective is jaded because of where I work. At CCRM, female scientists and engineers outnumber males.

I’m also encouraged by the #manels movement that is gaining attention on Twitter.

There is still a great deal of work to be done before we have equality in the workplace – STEM or otherwise. At the very least, let’s hope Drs. Duncan, Nemer and Shoichet, and Governor General Payette, can exert their influence to balance the gender imbalance that currently exists in STEM, while advising the government on other pressing science issues. Women are good at multi-tasking.

*STEM is the acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Female scientists and engineers at CCRM (with another eight absent from photo). Copyright CCRM



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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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