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Science is still sexist. I know from my own experience

Kirsty Duncan is Canada's Minister of Science.

When I was teaching at a university, a fellow faculty member shot a question at me during a staff meeting: When did I plan on getting pregnant? On other occasions, I was asked how I wanted to be treated: as a woman or as a scientist. Later, when I asked a university official why I was being paid in the bottom 10th percentile, I was told it was because I was "a woman."

I faced many more instances of sexism in my decades as a researcher. Now, as Canada's Minister of Science, I hear similar stories from women researchers who, in 2017, continue to suffer the same degradations, marginalization and challenges that I did.

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As I travel across the country visiting university campuses, women quietly tell me that they struggle with whether to choose an academic career or have a baby. One woman told me about the months she spent wearing a large lab coat to hide her pregnancy for fear of losing her job. These stories add to the evidence that already shows sharp inequities in the culture of research in Canada.

How is it that women make up approximately half of those earning their PhDs in the sciences and yet account for less than a quarter of full-time professors?

Why, after almost 20 years and multiple warnings about its inherent inequity, does the Canada Research Chairs program (CRC) produce status-quo results: Only 30 per cent of women are nominated to the program and even fewer Indigenous, visible minority and people with disabilities.

There are many exceptional female researchers in Canada and around the world who qualify for these chairs, far more than 30 per cent. Why aren't they being actively sought out and recruited to these prestigious positions?

Finally, how can the Canada Excellence Research Chairs program (CERC) that has granted $10-million to each of its 26 researchers only count one woman among its ranks?

Nature, one of the top science publications, sums it up best: "Science remains institutionally sexist. Despite some progress, women scientists are still paid less, promoted less frequently, win fewer grants and are more likely to leave research than similarly qualified men."

As Minister, I am working to reverse this pattern of discrimination.

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I instituted new equity and diversity provisions in the CERC program because, frankly, one woman isn't enough.

I launched a campaign to encourage more young women, Indigenous peoples and those who are otherwise underrepresented in research to choose science.

I confronted university presidents about the dismal performance of their institutions in nominating far too few women to the CRC program and called on them to meet the equity and diversity targets they had voluntarily established for themselves 10 years ago. There are simply too many decisions being made within institutions in less than transparent ways that have resulted in some candidates being favoured over others. Despite prodding and repeated warnings, many universities have failed to come close to their own targets.

In April, I made clear to the presidents that I would instruct CRC program officials to withhold funding for universities that do not meet their benchmarks in two years.

My actions build on our government's unapologetic approach to building an inclusive and fair Canada. Our efforts are motivated by a fundamental belief that the institutions we rely on must reflect the country of today: diverse, compassionate, hard-working and just.

We led by example with the first ever gender-balanced Cabinet, with the first gender statement in our most recent budget and, last week, with the launch of the first feminist international-assistance policy.

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Science would benefit from adopting a similar approach that openly promotes equity since women can bring different perspectives to the lab that could lead to improved health treatments, new technologies and different ways of understanding the world.

Views that support the status quo fail to recognize the potential of women and the contributions they make to science. Women, along with those who have historically been discriminated against, deserve better support in our quest to build a stronger, more inclusive society.

Video: New foreign aid policy focuses on women (The Canadian Press)
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