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Science Female researchers quit body honouring scientists after no women nominated

No women have been nominated to the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of fame for two years in a row.

AMANDA ROHDE/iSTOCKPHOTO

Two UBC researchers are pressing for better recognition for women in Canadian science after they resigned from a body that honours the nation's top scientists, but has not produced any female nominees for two years running.

Judy Illes and Catherine Anderson, researchers with the University of British Columbia, resigned from the selection committee of the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame this month after realizing that no women had recently been nominated for induction.

"We all have to do better," Prof. Illes told The Globe and Mail when her resignation was confirmed last week, before Prof. Anderson followed suit.

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WHAT THE HALL OF FAME IS

The hall off fame, housed at the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, recognizes researchers in Canada who have made "exceptional contributions to the fields of science or engineering." Established in 1991, it selects three new inductees each year.

Out of the 60 inductees to date, only 11 are women:

The museum runs a nomination period of approximately one year during which the public is invited to put names forward for consideration. Prof. Illes said she pushed for officials to be more aggressive in advertising the nomination process among universities and other institutions, but feels her calls were ultimately ignored. "We … did not do a satisfactory job in eliciting a full range of possible nominations," Prof. Illes told The Canadian Press in a telephone interview from Vancouver.

Nominations are currently open for the 2016 round of inductees. The deadline is Nov. 1.

WHAT JUDY ILLES SAYS

Who she is: Professor of neurology, University of British Columbia

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What she says: Prof. Illes has called for more direct efforts to solicit nominations of female candidates. "There are great science and engineering women out there in Canada today who have been part of our communities," she said in an interview with The Canadian Press from Vancouver. "To have zero women two years in a row signifies a failure on our part to really reach out as needed."

WHAT CATHERINE ANDERSON SAYS

Who she is: Member of UBC's faculty of medicine

What she says: Prof. Anderson, who quit her role on the Hall of Fame selection committee days after Prof. Illes, said her decision to step down was an effort to force the museum to change its ways. "There were some good suggestions made last year and we didn't act on them," she told The Canadian Press. "I was afraid that if we just kept making suggestions and kept thinking that we'd do them next year, it would always be next year."

WHAT THE MUSEUM SAYS

Museum spokesman Olivier Bouffard said Prof. Illes raised the lack of female nominees as a concern last June in the middle of the 2014-15 nomination period. He said the organization felt her concerns were valid and said officials are working to address the issue, but declined to offer further details.

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Misunderstandings abound, since both sides have different perceptions of what Dr. Illes proposed to address the gender disparity. "What we understood is that Dr. Illes wanted us to start over the nomination process midstream when she expressed those views in June," Mr. Bouffard said. "… We didn't feel it was fair to those who had been nominated who are deserving scientists in and of themselves." Prof. Illes, however, contends that she proposed allowing existing nominations to stand while working more aggressively to solicit new ones from a more diverse candidate pool.

WOMEN IN SCIENCE

The imbalance in the Hall of Fame's inductees reflects the relatively low numbers of female scientists and engineers working in Canada until recent decades. But the nominations of female candidates have not been keeping up with the growing contributions of Canadian women in science and technology.

As of 2011, women made up the majority of young university graduates, according to Statistics Canada's National Household Survey. But men still held a majority of university degrees in so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics): Of university graduates aged 25 to 34 with STEM degrees, only 39 per cent were women. That's still an improvement over previous generations: Of STEM graduates aged 55 to 64, women accounted for only 23 per cent.

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With reports from Ivan Semeniuk and Evan Annett

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