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Veronica Dahl, who has retired from Simon Fraser University, at her Vancouver home with her daughter Maria Turner. (Laura Leyshon For the Globe and Mail)
Veronica Dahl, who has retired from Simon Fraser University, at her Vancouver home with her daughter Maria Turner. (Laura Leyshon For the Globe and Mail)

The XX Factor: Women in Science

Gender equality eludes groundbreaking scientist Add to ...

Veronica Dahl isn’t the sort of person to get worked up over $17. But, back in 1984, when Simon Fraser University refused to reimburse her $17 for one hour of babysitting for her infant son while she gave a lecture at an out-of-town conference, the computer scientist was incensed.

“Why isn’t babysitting an allowable expense?” Dr. Dahl recalls asking.

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Personal expenses don’t count, she was told. The response from the university dissatisfied her. “How is childcare more personal than the bed I sleep in?” she wondered. The response: having a child is a choice.

This was too much for Dr. Dahl, a computer scientist considered a founder of the field of logic programming. A native of Argentina, she was accustomed to the more overt sexism she experienced there, but not this “polite discrimination.” She brought her complaint to her department (all men) but received little support. After admitting defeat at SFU, she protested to the Natural Sciences and Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the grant council eventually changed its policy to allow any researcher they funded to expense childcare when attending conferences while nursing.

Dr. Dahl laughs as she recounts her $17 victory three decades later on the month of her retirement from teaching at SFU.

However, circumstances for women in her male-dominated field haven’t changed all that much. Only 17 per cent of undergraduate computer science students are women. Dr. Dahl’s personal history shows how one woman fought against what she perceived as gender bias, while also reaching the top echelons of her field.

“Young women typically don’t see themselves as being discriminated [against]. But while we’ve addressed some problems, over all we’re not that much better.”

Paul Tarau, a professor at the University of North Texas and Dr. Dahl’s long-time collaborator, describes her as an early pioneer in computer programming. “Her early work was very courageous for the time,” Dr. Tarau says.

The boldness that has defined both her research and her fight for women’s rights in the academy may have its roots in Argentina. Dr. Dahl was an undergraduate computer science student at Buenos Aires University during the political violence in the 1970s. When a TA was arrested during class, Dr. Dahl and her classmates occupied their classroom in protest. The military gas-bombed the room and forced the students through a gauntlet of baton-wielding soldiers as they fled.

As political killings and disappearances increased, Dr. Dahl applied for a scholarship to attend graduate school in France. When a childhood friend was machine gunned while trying to enter the university, Dr. Dahl made up her mind. She left in September of 1975, mere months before Argentina’s 1976 military coup d’état.

At Université d’Aix-Marseille, Dr. Dahl was lonely and conflicted. Her friends were being killed and tortured in Argentina while she was in a bucolic Provencal town on the Mediterranean, the most beautiful place she had ever seen. With a full scholarship, she had the privilege to do nothing but study for the first time in her life. Her response was to throw herself into scholarship and she was one of the first female graduates of the highly valued doctorate of artificial intelligence when she finished in 1977.

For Dr. Dahl’s PhD research, she combined her love of literature (she’s won awards for her poetry and short fiction) with computer science. Having excelled in mathematics, she was attracted to logic and became one of the few researchers pioneering a new field called logic programming. She created the first program using logic programming that could decipher queries and commands in a human language.

Dr. Dahl arrived in Canada at SFU as the field of logic programming exploded and at a time when she realized Argentina was not safe for her.

Dr. Dahl and her husband, a professor from Kentucky, commuted between their respective universities, trading research semesters, and she was soon pregnant with her son Alex. (Her marriage ended while Alex was a toddler. Her daughter Maria was born later during a second long-term relationship.) Her research was thriving, and Dr. Dahl had grown used to being a rare woman in a very male-dominated field. She often received letters from colleagues addressed “Dear Sir.”

Dr. Dahl was surprised when she asked the SFU faculty association how to apply for maternity leave and was told the situation had never arisen. “It was a coincidence: Babies were always born during research semesters.” Yet she shrugged it all off.

But she couldn’t ignore all evidence of what she interpreted as gender-based discrimination. When she applied to become a full professor, she was told she didn’t have enough academic publications even though a male colleague had recently been advanced with fewer. When IBM approached Dr. Dahl to conduct research, she negotiated a record-breaking industry grant that included equipment, student salaries and a standard (albeit generous) consulting fee for her. Despite the fact that SFU deducted 35 per cent overhead from grants, she was told she couldn’t earn that much more than her colleagues and she was forced to take an unpaid leave from SFU.

Nevertheless, Dr. Dahl assumed that her salary was fair. In 1997 SFU discovered that male faculty were paid $10,000 a year more than female professors on average, and the university ordered a review of all women’s salaries. Dr. Dahl was shocked. After two years of studying her specific case, she received a significant raise, retroactive to the initial review. Her pension was never adjusted for the years of being paid less than her male peers.

Dr. Dahl responded by acting as a mentor to other female scientists. One student, Alma Barranco, now faculty at Trinity Western University, held a high-level full-time job and had a difficult pregnancy with twins while a PhD student in 2002. She returned to her studies after recovering from complications, but was told she had gone over the time allowed for PhD studies. Dr. Dahl brought a complaint to the human rights commissioner, which led to new policies. “I graduated years ago but Veronica has become a mentor for life,” Dr. Barranco says.

Dr. Dahl’s groundbreaking research on logic programming has found applications as disparate as managing disease in agriculture and marine ecosystems to mapping the human genome. One evening after putting her two children, then still young, to bed, she sat at her computer and opened an e-mail from the Association of Logic Programming. Would she accept the honour of being recognized as one of the “founding fathers” of the field? the international association wondered.

Alone in her home office, she burst out laughing. “I would be very honoured,” she wrote back, “unless it implies a change of sex operation.”

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