In the opening ceremony of Gender Summit 11 (North America), B. Mario Pinto, the president of NSERC told us that throughout the conference we would broaden our understanding of diversity. Scientists and those of us invested in diversity, he said, need to fully embrace creativity in their thinking and to fully consider the possibilities of change. We need to think about how and where diversity can be employed for greater impact. He said, “science has no borders, just frontiers,” and if we leverage the power of diversity we can conquer the big challenges that humanity faces, namely climate change and the global migration/refugee crisis. Scientists, he reminded us, have a social responsibility to continue good science and to ensure it is applied for the greater good. His message was clear – with good science and diversity in our toolkit, humanity can save itself.
The final speaker of the opening ceremony was Kevin Deer, Elder from the Mohawk people. He welcomed us to this land and reminded us of its long history. He acknowledged the earth as our mother, and pointed out that as children we are all of her bosom and that she continues to give us all that we need. He spoke of his people’s own creation story. Water is the precursor to life – a mother’s water breaks and a life is brought into the world. We are all connected to our mother through our belly button as they are connected to their mother and on and on. If you follow that relationship all the way back it connects us all to our first mother – mother earth. The very first song each of us ever heard was that of our mother’s heartbeat, and so the water drum is of great importance. He speaks of the power of sacred song, dance, and ceremony to sustain us, they are what connect us to the earth. He will share a sacred song with us (using his water drum), but before he does he counsels us not to clap at the end of the song because it is not a performance. He says, “I’m not here as a token Indian…I’m here to share knowledge and wisdom about our land”. With these words we are given a stark reminder of how empty our rhetoric of diversity and inclusion often is.
Throughout the 3 days, we heard often about the dearth of women in most STEM fields, particularly in leadership roles, and especially in academia. Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, told us that only 22% of STEM workers in Canada are women, that of 27 Canada Research Chair positions in STEM fields only 1 is filled by a woman, and that there is not one single Black female physics professor in Canada. Despite attempts to attract girls and women into STEM fields, female enrollment in computer science is trending down. Over and over, we were told that retaining women after they’re hired is as much, if not more, of a problem than recruitment. Kirsty Duncan declares to us that “science needs women, needs diversity, needs everyone”. We (Canada) can’t afford to leave talent behind in this competitive globalized environment.
Faced with abysmal statistics about gender and diversity and the daunting task of finding solutions for the problem, speakers were generally optimistic. Many spoke of the present as a “watershed moment” for women (some referring to the “feminist leadership” of the Trudeau government, some referring to the political climate in the US, and some referring to the recent attention to sexual violence in the media). There were accounts of how diversity policies have been successfully implemented to increase the number of women in senior positions. One example of note was that of Via Rail where in 2010 the board of directors had only 2 women and the executive committee had 0. The CEO, Yves Desjardins-Siciliano, implemented a policy that before any new hires could be selected, he had to be notified of the top 2 candidates for the post and that one of them had to be a woman. Before a man could be hired instead of that woman, the hiring committee had to give an explanation as to why the man was a better choice. The board now consists of 6 women and 5 men, while the executive committee includes 5 men and 4 women. He emphasized the importance of intention and direct action. Unless you choose to make your workplace more diverse, implement concrete policies to make it happen, and then hold those responsible for implementing them accountable, nothing will change. He said the current government is dedicated to diversity because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s also the smart business choice. Another speaker, Zabeen Hirjii, from Royal Bank importantly pointed out that “diversity is a fact, inclusion is a choice”. While policies like that at Via Rail are effective in getting women in the door, we need others to ensure they stay.
I have been using “diversity” throughout this post because it is the word speakers were using, though generally what was meant was (binary) gender parity. I found it particularly interesting because “intersectionality” was a prominent buzz word at the conference. And I say buzz word with intention. Many presenters spoke of the importance of intersectionality, that diversity is about more than just gender – and it very much is. What I found troubling is that even after speakers would go through the effort of explaining or defining intersectionality, the majority would then only talk about gender, or gender “and other groups”. Only one panel throughout the entire conference included any discussion of disability. When a woman of colour asked a panel how they might approach diversity in their workplace from a more intersectional perspective, the two (white) panellists who responded essentially said that racial/ethnic diversity isn’t a problem for them. One even said something to the effect of there being “many shades of caramel” in his office. Although this was a particularly egregious example, I got the impression that many people were generally uncomfortable speaking about identity categories outside of gender, and a very binary notion of gender at that. This is not to say that there were not some exceptions. We heard about the need for more data about how many LGBTQ2 professionals there are and in what disciplines (and also the general population). Albert McLeod discussed indigenous conceptions of sex/gender and the impact of residential schools on two-spirit people. We also heard from Vanessa Raponi who founded EngiQueers – a community and advocacy group who work to promote the inclusion of LGBTQ+ students in engineering schools across Canada.
To end, I have a few general observations from the conference overall. The first is the emphasis placed on the importance of collecting more data about diversity before we can do anything about it. Perhaps this should be no surprise given that it was a room full of predominantly STEM people, but I found it a strange combination of encouraging and disheartening. On one hand, this community recognizes the importance of diversity and equity. On the other, we heard often about “stories” and “anecdotal evidence” as not being enough, that we need “real data” before we can really know there is a problem. The second observation is that the economic impact of diversity is of prime importance in the business sector, in academia, and in government. Time and again speakers would say diversity is the right thing to do, but studies show that we need diversity to be economically successful and viable going forward. Finally, I was very surprised at the lack of attention given to computer science, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics. I had assumed that these subjects would come up often at a STEM conference about diversity, but only the last keynote on the last day touched on them at all. This conference was very much focused on figuring out how to attract, recruit, and retain more women into senior academic positions in science and engineering. This to be fair, is a reasonable goal for a gender summit about STEM.