Hilda Ching
Hilda Ching

Most of the women scientists I know love their work and believe in meritocracy, that all they have to do is do science well. The sexist slights and problems they may face are just more challenges to their problem solving expertise, to be solved on a personal basis. They may truly believe that they are one of the boys or that they prefer the positions that they find themselves in. What it boils down to is that most women scientists haven't had much time to think of the systemic barriers which have kept women out of the system. This ignorance applies to men, too, as one of my colleagues wondered why our
department had only one female faculty member in twenty years.

Since gender role stereotyping begins at an early age, it is important to pique the interest of girls in science at the start of schooling. We need to convince parents and teachers that girls need science just as much as boys and that they should provide role models for young girls interested in careers in science. While many girls are keen on science, they do not have clear images of themselves as potential scientists. What should be top priority is the transformation of schooling so that the language, curriculum, packaging of the courses, and classroom interactions reflect the values and interests of women (5).

Though girls get better grades than boys in school through to university, they speak less often in the classroom and obtain less practical experiences in science. Career days, all day math and science conferences, videotapes on careers and women scientists are among the effective attraction strategies. Retention programs such as national scholarships and faculty awards and mentoring programs will help to keep women within the system.

However, these are all special measures which are not available to every girl in the country nor are they enough to offset the prevailing social attitudes towards women and work. Young women need to recognize the gender blocks continually being placed in front of them; for instance, being told they lack the ability to do science, that they are in the wrong field, or should get married and raise children. Women need to know how to deal with these blocks creatively; not just by coping, ignoring the situations, or by blaming themselves (6).

Although women have to work to earn a living, we have not provided supportive conditions or changed the work world to accommodate their needs. Career pathways, especially in the sciences, assume that someone is at home for the breadwinner after long hours in the laboratory. Women scientists particularly face the dilemma of establishing their scientific reputation, in publishing their research and supervising graduate students, at the same time they might be raising a family.

Superwomen or successful women who have juggled careers and a family life are in demand for discussions with students who seek out advice for their future long struggle in academia. I suggest that there be dual responsibilities for men for home and family life, universal child care, and flexible pathways including no-penalty leaves of absences from the work force. Employment equity programs in our universities and federal funding for new women faculty in the sciences bring hope that the numbers of women in academia will increase at a faster rate. While women comprise 17% of the faculty at Simon Fraser University, there are only one or two women in each of the science and engineering departments.

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