Photo credit: Science & Policy Exchange
It was November 2017, and we found ourselves in a room surrounded by diverse women leaders. Some were dressed in power suits, others more casually, but all were there for one reason: to discuss equity, diversity, and inclusion in the scientific enterprise.
We were at the 11th Gender Summit, attending as student representatives from McGill University. Listening to all the rich knowledge, experiences, and expertise being shared by the speakers from all sectors, it truly crystallized for us how deeply entrenched and far-reaching gender bias and inequality is. We wanted to do more, and for the first time felt empowered and equipped to do so because of the work we had been doing in science policy.
As women in science, we had both been peripherally aware that there was gender bias in STEM. We knew there were fewer women than men in science, that the women in science were disadvantaged in various ways, and we understood that it was important to rectify this from a representation perspective. We enthusiastically participated in initiatives to get young girls excited about science and joined women-led organizations like Scientista, an organization for women university students to provide community and resources; however, making or leading significant change felt out of reach for us personally.
Making or leading significant change felt out of reach for us personally.
Then in July 2017, we co-authored an open letter asking the government of Canada to invest in fundamental science, highlighting why this was crucial for the next generation of scientists and skilled professionals. With the Science & Policy Exchange (SPE) team, we launched an extensive social media campaign (#Students4theReport) to both promote funding for basic research and to inform students across the country about the importance of this issue. The campaign was incredibly successful, garnering widespread support from the Canadian science and higher education communities, and played a key role in a substantial increase in federal funding for science in the 2018 federal budget. This was an eye-opening and inspiring learning experience. It taught us that even though we were mere students, we were capable of advocating for the change that we needed. By working together with other like-minded and motivated students, and by seeking support from key influential people, we were able to amplify our message enough to impact federal policy. And along the way, we gained experience in writing policy documents, organizing events, speaking to different audiences, and networking.
By working together with other like-minded and motivated students, and by seeking support from key influential people, we were able to amplify our message enough to impact federal policy.
After the Gender Summit, and with newfound belief in our ability to create meaningful change, we got to work. With SPE, we organized a student and postdoctoral fellow consultation on gender barriers in STEM. We equipped ourselves with statistics on gender bias, and presented them to participants in a two-page brief. In small groups, participants reflected on personal experiences of being underrepresented in STEM, identified gender-based challenges, and generated recommendations on how to address these challenges. A report summarizing the discussions from the event has since been sent to leaders within the McGill community, as well as to officials at both the provincial and federal levels, with whom we are actively pursuing opportunities to meet and share our ideas.
We were also invited to speak at the Faculty of Medicine faculty council meeting. Standing in front of faculty members, administrators, staff, and other student representatives, we shared reflections and recommendations from the Gender Summit, and urged the faculty to take action to address existing gender inequities. Following this, we helped organize and facilitate a large-scale forum where nearly 100 participants from all career stages gathered to discuss gender issues in the sciences. The level of enthusiasm at this event was overwhelming. Each time we spoke out, we grew a little more confident that our collective voices could affect change and that we could demand better from those in positions of power.
Each time we spoke out, we grew a little more confident that our collective voices could affect change and that we could demand better from those in positions of power.
There are many paralyzing fears that can accompany speaking out on a topic like gender bias; as relatively privileged women who have been largely spared overt discrimination or harassment in the workplace, we had plenty of these. The fear of lacking authority, of lacking experience, and of lacking knowledge. The fear of coming off too “complain-y” or taking space away from those with less privilege. But this is a particularly sinister form of imposter syndrome. The burden of fighting for change should not rest solely on the shoulders of those with lived experiences, because our freedoms are inextricably bound together. What is important is that we listen, learn, expose ourselves to different experiences and perspectives, and find out how we can use any privilege or platform we have to be good allies. We started by attending as many women in science and EDI seminars as we could. We actively participated in the discussions with the understanding that while we know very little, we still have something to contribute, even if it meant potentially saying something wrong so that it could be a teaching moment for everyone. Then we began creating spaces for women to gather and share stories, build solidarity, and forge a way forward.
What is important is that we listen, learn, expose ourselves to different experiences and perspectives, and find out how we can use any privilege or platform we have to be good allies.
Our journey started with our advocacy work in science funding, which equipped us with science policy skills and the belief that we could meaningfully advocate for what was important to us. But everyone’s journey is different. Ultimately, the best way to get involved is to start talking to people. You can interact online with existing advocates and help amplify their messages. You can attend events and listen to others’ experiences. You can join groups that align with your values and that have a platform to push for change. Or you can form your own group! Start small—intimate groups are often the setting for the richest discussions. For example, an international book club called the STEMMinist Book Club inspired us to start our own Montreal chapter, which meets every couple of months. We are only around six women, but these gatherings have become more than conversations about books—they are a safe space to share and build community.
We believe that our experiences, our voices, and our ideas matter, and that some of the most important work we can do is to empower other women to believe this too. And we are just getting started.