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the xx factor: women in science

At Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., women make up 40 per cent of the program’s graduates thanks to measures begun by professor Christine Alvarado and backed by the school’s president, Maria Klawe.J. Emilio Flores/The Globe and Mail

Shortly after Maria Klawe was named Princeton University's first female dean of engineering, she met a long-serving male faculty member on a campus walk. "He said, 'I don't have to listen to a word you say, because I know you only got the job because you're female,'" Dr. Klawe, now president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., recalls. "And I said, 'Actually, this is one of the few times in my life when I know I wasn't hired because I'm female because President [Shirley] Tilghman told me she was going to receive a lot of flak for hiring me, but I was the best candidate.' He just walked away. He didn't say a word."

Such confrontations aren't consigned to a bygone era. Dr. Klawe's run-in happened in 2002, but it didn't dent her ambitions: The Toronto-born computer scientist with a PhD in mathematics from the University of Alberta has had a trailblazing career as a scientist and has successfully boosted other women into high-profile positions.

As shown in a federally commissioned report released last week by the Council of Canadian Academies, women still make up only a third of Canadian faculty, and the numbers are even more alarming for women in science fields. In computer science, engineering, math and physical sciences, only 15 per cent of professors are women. That is dismaying for female professors, and students also suffer when campuses lack diversity at the top. Dr. Klawe, now 61, has concluded the most effective solutions are small-scale but sustained measures that don't depend on changing political winds. Instead, they rely on buy-in from universities and a younger generation of academics, who haven't faced the explicit bias directed at the outspoken pioneers who broke professional ground decades ago.

"A lot of [the newer cohort] doesn't see any problems until they get maybe 10 or 15 years in," said Catherine Mavriplis, one of five Canadians holding a Chair for Women in Science and Engineering with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). "They start to notice, 'hey, this guy I started with, he's now vice-president, and how come I'm nowhere near that?'"

Quantum physicist Shohini Ghose, 38, joined Wilfrid Laurier University's faculty seven years ago, having been greeted in many a physics lab with, "Good morning, gentlemen." At Laurier, she found a "respectful atmosphere" that allowed her to focus on her work, rather than her gender, but still embraced the chance to be the inaugural director of Laurier's Centre for Women in Science, launched earlier this month in an effort to approach gender issues more strategically.

The centre has renewable seed funding of $75,000 supplemented by sponsors, and will give out scholarships and grants, host prominent speakers, and aims to develop a wide-ranging network of mentors through which women can promote and support each other.

"Some of this is about the buddy system, to be honest," Dr. Ghose said. "When you're approached to nominate somebody for a top prize, you will think about your friends and your community, and there is an established network."

One of the centre's goals is to draw students into that network. Dr. Ghose has seen the power of telling her first-year students stories about women's contributions to physics, or taking time in class to directly debunk notions that female brains are cognitively unsuited to the subject, and she hopes the centre will amplify these messages.

Even at Harvey Mudd, a college of science, engineering and mathematics, barely one in 10 computer science majors was female just a few years ago. Now, women make up 40 per cent of the program's graduates thanks to measures begun by professor Christine Alvarado and backed by Dr. Klawe. Faculty revamped the introductory computer course to make it less deeply technical and more focused on how to apply computers to real life. And the college began paying to send female freshmen to the Grace Hopper Conference, which celebrates women in computing.

"You go to that conference and you've got 3,000 people, of whom maybe 50 are male, and they're all women interested in technology. The buzz is just incredible," Dr. Klawe said. "Students go there and they go, 'Oh, these are perfectly normal-looking human beings – they wear high heels, they know how to dance.'"

University department heads interact with these women every day, but Dr. Klawe still worries entrenched interviewing, hiring and award selection practices are unintentionally disadvantaging qualified, deserving female candidates. At the University of British Columbia, she counselled the mathematics department – which had only two female professors – to create a "hit list" of women anywhere in the world worth poaching, and invite a dozen of them to visit for a week and give talks. One jumped ship from Princeton, another came the following year, and in three years the department recruited six new female faculty. "Most people actually care about doing things right," she said.

But without constant vigilance and leadership, this hard-won momentum can easily be halted. "In the six years after I left, [UBC] hired almost no women [in science]," Dr. Klawe said. "It wasn't that they didn't want to hire women. They just had stopped paying attention."


Clarification: Between 2002 and 2012, the percentage of women assistant, associate and full professors in the Faculty of Science at UBC has increased from 14 per cent to 20 per cent. The number of women full professors has increased from six in 2002 to 35 today. A story on Monday omitted this information.

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