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Inside the mind of a woman in science in 2018

March 12, 2018
By: 
Noeline Subramaniam
PhD Candidate
University of Toronto

I was always taught to let my work speak for itself and eventually, I’d reap the benefits of my hard work. However, once I began my research training, my fellow female colleagues and I soon came to realize that simply conducting good science was not enough to be considered equal to our male colleagues. According to Statistics Canada, even though more women are pursuing STEM fields, it still remains male-dominated. In fact, women who excelled at STEM subjects in high school are less likely to choose a STEM field than men who have received lower grades. Even amongst those of us who do pursue a STEM-related field, we are less likely to remain in the field when compared to our male counterparts. So in 2018, what does it feel like to be a woman in science?

I completed my Master’s degree at the University of Guelph in the biomedical sciences department. Historically and at the time of my training, my department has predominantly consisted of female trainees. In fact, my entire lab with the exception of my supervisor, was female. I cannot emphasize enough the value in having female colleagues to go to, to discuss not only our experiments, but our struggles. To me, there is something so important about working with female scientists because I can see myself reflected in these women and it also reminds me that I’m not in it alone. The women I have met during my research training are still the most supportive and talented group of individuals I have ever met. Their fierce advocacy for women in science even as our lives have changed is nothing short of inspirational.

Adding to that, it is crucial to have female role models because they serve as a physical reminder that it is possible to succeed as a woman in STEM. As the way STEM fields are now, it remains difficult for women to remain in science after our doctoral degrees have been granted. Even with the high proportion of female trainees in my department, a quick look at our faculty is quite telling; only about a fifth of them are women. Where did they go? Why aren’t there more of them? It is up to us to hold our universities and government agencies accountable and ensure that diversity is considered in the hiring process. It takes a variety of perspectives to foster innovation.

We also need our male allies to acknowledge and advocate for us in our fight for equality. The most significant male ally in my life has been my Master’s supervisor. He created an academic environment that encouraged us to be ourselves, wholly and completely. He invested in our success, not just professionally, but personally as well. And most importantly, he advocated and promoted us at every opportunity. We need more male allies to take up arms for us. We need you to listen, to advocate for us and to send the elevator down when you can. Together, equality is attainable.

So in 2018, I, like many women in science, look to the future for a day when we need not be defined as ‘women in science’ and can simply be viewed as ‘scientists’. We still need to raise awareness in promoting women and diversity in science. By allowing people from a variety of backgrounds an opportunity a seat at the table, we can continue to make national strides and produce even higher quality research. Until then, we will continue to celebrate the small victories and the big wins. More women are choosing STEM than ever before. Women like Dr. Mona Nemer, our current chief advisor of Canada and Dr. Molly Shoichet, Ontario’s first chief scientist, are being put in highly influential positions of power. I am optimistic that our time is now.