The UVic Torch · University of Victoria Alumni Magazine · Autumn 1998

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by Marianne B. Scott

For the last two decades, Canadian parents and educators have been striving to improve the representation of women and girls in the fields of science and engineering. The results have been spectacular in some areas, lacklustre in others.

At UVic, more women than men are graduating with degrees in biology and microbiology-a reflection of national trends. But look at the number of women studying the "hard sciences"-physics, chemistry, computer science and engineering-and the gender imbalance is striking.

Why are young women staying away from these fields when high-tech and knowledge-based industries have a huge demand for people educated in these disciplines? And, some people ask, should we even care that women are not preparing for such careers?

"We should definitely care," says Dr. Penny Codding, UVic Vice-President Academic and Provost, and a Professor of Chemistry. "There are lots of reasons. Without women in these fields, we lose 50 per cent of the available brain power when we need all the brains we can get. It's unfair for young women not to access these personally rewarding and lucrative jobs. And with technology such a dominant part of our lives, those lacking knowledge get isolated, live closed lives."

"Research shows," Codding continues, "that at every point where a choice is to be made, young women choose away from science." That's why at UVic, only 10.4 per cent of students studying mechanical and electrical engineering and computer science are female, a percentage similar to other universities offering those specific disciplines. (Other programs, like environmental, civil and chemical engineering, have higher female enrolments.)

The choices "away from science" are made early in life when decisions need to be made about secondary school courses. Without physics, math and chemistry, students don't meet entrance requirements for university engineering programs. As one UVic engineering professor said, "these choices in the early teens determine a whole career trajectory. Although I know of engineers who enrich their later life with poetry and music, I seldom hear of an English major who begins to learn calculus and physics after age 50."

Yet some women do choose the hard sciences. What distinguishes them from the rest? The Torch asked UVic students Elise Fear (MA "97), 26, who's halfway through her PhD in electrical engineering; Laurel Clouston, 28, who'll finish her PhD in chemistry this fall; and Deborah Rose, 41, who hopes to earn a BSc in astronomy four years from now. One common experience among these women is strong encouragement and inspiration during their schooling.

 

Elise Fear (MA "97)

Fear tells how her dad repeated a favourite motto: "Math is a simple subject suitable for the simpleminded." That, and her parents' support, were enough for Fear to do well in math and other studies and enter an enrichment program from grades 6-8. "Being part of that program was quite useful to me," smiles Fear. "I learned it was OK to be myself and to be different; I got used to being a freak."

 

Laurel Clouston

Clouston recalls how an enthusiastic (male) chemistry teacher inspired her. "I got intrigued that everything in the world was made up of those bits on the periodic table and the teacher also introduced me to female graduate students. I didn't have any idea what a graduate student was but these women were my first role models."

 

Deborah Rose

Similarly, Rose's interest in astronomy was fired when she took a required science course at a California junior college. "It was the teacher's excitement that made me decide to do the math and physics I'd need to become an astronomer," said the one-time high school drop-out from Montreal. "I took four astronomy courses with him and then came to UVic to learn more."

But encouragement at one point in life is not enough for women to continue in their science studies. If they consciously choose science, their study and career planning appear more complex than that of men. Women don't just think about the work they will do-they may consider how that career fits with a husband and family; they might think about obligations to older parents; and they assess if their work has value to the community. As Fear says, "just building another circuit isn't enough."

For women, the need for a "human" aspect of science arises continually. Clouston will take a post-doctoral position at the University of California at Berkeley and teaching is one of her goals. She likes the "people interaction." For her thesis, Fear will be looking for ways that microwaves can detect breast cancer. Her eventual objective is to teach at a university or work in the health field.

Combining a family with a career can also be more of a challenge for women. Codding, who has two grown children, spent 10 years following a husband and taking part-time jobs. "Those 10 years weren't lost," says Codding. "Maybe a bit as a chemist because I worked only part-time, but I'm glad for what I did and for the kids I have." Codding also believes that those experiences now shape her role as vice-president. "Institutions must respect our "humanness'. We must acknowledge that people live complex lives."

Clouston, who is married, wants to have children eventually and thinks that some of the attitudes toward family needs have changed. She's sure she'll be able to thrive as a chemist and a mum. "I have," she chuckles, "two sayings that guide me: Just because I don't see it being done, it doesn't mean it can't be done; and, if I want something I'll do everything to make it work." Fear isn't so sure about family plans: "maybe I'll just be a very good aunt."

Rose, who worked as a recruiter for technical companies, recalls how women would take themselves out of the running for high-paying jobs. "They had the qualifications but those companies weren't family friendly and the women would state clearly they'd have to leave work at five o'clock. They couldn't put in 60 hours a week."

All four women participate in Women in Science and Engineering (WISE), a group that includes faculty, staff and students. "It's a comfortable environment for us and it allows us to talk with other women," says Clouston. Fear agrees. "I get lots of support from my advisor, Dr. Maria Stuchly," she says. "But I don't have much peer group support in the department. It can be isolating, being a grad student. With WISE, if I have to deal with something, I can talk to someone. It's a social network."

Dean of Engineering Michael Miller says he's concerned about the low percentage of women in engineering, and that he wants women to "make a well-reasoned choice [so they are] not deciding against computer science and engineering due to lack of information or [because of] disinformation."

"Young teenagers can choose too many of their courses," Codding says. "They may not be ready to decide these things. In Alberta, a required, grade 10 multi-science course gives all students exposure. They also offer all-girl physics classes because traditionally, in mixed classrooms, boys do the experiments and girls take down the data."

Asked what can be done to encourage girls to choose science studies and careers, everyone has strong views. Clouston: "We must encourage all young people to seek opportunities in science. I look forward to the day that scientists are evaluated the same as everyone else. Everyone assumes you have to be super smart. You don't have to be a star, just well-trained and committed."

Fear focuses on role models. "They make the biggest difference in the world," she maintains. "Without role models, you can't imagine what's possible, you can't visualize yourself in the role of a scientist."

Rose sees television as a menace. "The popular shows tell girls to manipulate guys," she says. "These girls never work hard yet they're often in glamorous careers. In sitcoms depicting school kids, you see only smart alecs spouting one-liners. Nobody is solving physics problems; no one even takes notes. People should be telling kids that being an astronomer is cool."

 

Dr. Penny Codding, UVic Vice-President Academic and Provost, and a Professor of Chemistry.

Codding concurs enthusiastically. "The patterns are all around us. Scientists are male. Scientists want to cut up lovable creatures like ET. We must show how science makes a difference in the environment and health; how chemistry is used for the good. I tell parents they should search for experiences that'll expose children to science. Let them assemble things. Every child is born knowing the scientific method but we drum it out of them. Before kindergarten, children should know how to build a volcano out of baking soda and vinegar. Let them be messy. Let them see what happens to a dead frog. As for the girls, tell them they can do it. That being a scientist or an engineer is an honourable profession that is rewarding personally and financially. It will be truly sad if half the people don't participate in the scientific adventure."

In 1997, Elise Fear earned top honours-for a paper based on her master thesis-in an international student paper competition sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. Earlier this year, Laurel Clouston won the graduate student award of merit -for outstanding leadership and an exemplary academic record-from the Senior Women Academic Administrators of Canada.


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