Scitech | Victoria Kaspi wins Herzberg medal

A step toward gender equality in STEM

McGill is basking in pride after Professor of Physics and Lorne Trottier Chair of Astrophysics and Cosmology – Victoria Kaspi – was awarded with the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering. The award was given to Kaspi in recognition of her eminent and influential research on pulsars, a type of rapidly rotating, highly magnetized neutron star. The award takes its name from Canadian Nobel Laureate of Chemistry Gerhard Herzberg and is distributed via the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. Kaspi is not only one of the youngest researchers to receive this award, but she is also the first woman to do so.

Kaspi’s astounding success within astrophysics is evidenced by the long list of awards and distinctions that she has accumulated throughout her relatively short career. Her previous distinctions include the Herzberg Medal of the Canadian Association of Physicists, the Steacie Prize, the Rutherford Memorial Medal of the Royal Society of Canada, and the Prix Marie-Victorin – not to mention being a McGill alumna of ‘89. Also noteable on the list of Kaspi’s accomplishments is the Annie J. Cannon Award in Astronomy, given by the American Astronomical Society, which Kaspi received in 1998.

Like Kaspi, Annie J. Cannon was a great female astronomer who was instrumental in shaping and furthering the way we understand the universe; Cannon is credited with developing the first classification system for stellar bodies. It was another great heroine of astrophysics, Cecilia Payne, who realized that Cannon’s classification system, which was based off the temperature of the stars, also correlated with the stars’ chemical composition. Payne’s doctoral thesis, “Stellar Atmospheres,” which outlined her and Cannon’s finding was disregarded as it went completely against conventional knowledge of the stars. It took four years before her contemporaries realized that Payne had been correct and acknowledged her revolutionary discovery. Like Victoria Kaspi, the story of Cannon and Payne exemplifies the hugely influential role women have had in the field of astrophysics, while also alluding to the dismissal of women in academia.

Even though Cannon and Payne were working nearly a century ago, it remains no secret that there is still gender based discrimination within the upper levels of the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Although these fields often have many women in their ranks at the undergraduate level, female representation drops moving up the educational and professional ladder. The phenomenon is well-known and is often referred to as the “leaky pipeline.” Although there are a number of reasons for why this might be the case, with some blaming innate gender differences, or women’s focus on family over career, these unfounded explanations don’t stack up in reality. The most likely explanation for this leaky pipeline phenomenon is a systematic discrimination against marginalized groups within the STEM fields.

One might assume this bias doesn’t exist within today’s supposedly liberally-minded academic institutions, but a paper published by Corinne Moss-Racusin and associates from Yale titled “Science Faculty’s Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students” provides unsettling evidence for the existence of this discrimination. The researchers recruited a sample of over 150 STEM professors at several top American universities and had them assess two candidates applying for a lab manager position. The faculty were asked to rate the applicant’s competence, perceived hireability, and the likelihood that they would mentor the candidate. The candidates’ resumes were identical, with the exception of their name being gendered.

This subtle tactic produced results overwhelmingly consistent with the leaky pipeline hypothesis. The male candidate was rated significantly higher in all domains – competence, hireability, and mentoring. What is most striking is that the gender of the professor had no effect, meaning even female professors were susceptible to committing this type of discrimination. When asked why they rated the female candidate lower, the professors reported that they perceived those applicants to be less competent.

The results of Moss-Racusin’s study are consistent with the historical and modern perception of women in STEM fields; women consistently have to work harder to prove their worth in this competitive realm. What’s more is that this leaky pipeline does not apply only to women, but extends to other groups discriminated against based on race, age, and other identity factors. In order to overcome this systematic and erroneous prejudice, we must actively create opportunities for their professional and academic development within the STEM fields as well as other white male-dominated sectors such as business and government.

Recognizing that systematic discrimination continues within STEM fields, Victoria Kaspi’s recent award becomes all the more remarkable and a toast to all women in academia. By celebrating prominent female scientists and their contributions, we are simultaneously creating positive role models in science and technology and erasing the sexist notion that women are incompetent. This award has brought Kaspi to the forefront of STEM in Canada, and will be pivotal to improving the representation of women in STEM everywhere.

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