Scitech  Women talk success

Panel moves from discussion of science to managing motherhood

The topic of motherhood dominated a panel – entitled “Women and Innovation” – last Wednesday, which featured three women involved in science academia who discussed their paths to success.

Organized by Woman Without Borders, the talk was part of the International Women’s Day events at McGill and included panelists Suzelle Barrington, the first woman to be elected president of the Canadian Society of Agricultural Engineering, Si Yue Guo, president of the Students’ Physics Society, and Vicky Kaspi, Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics and the Lorne Trottier Chair in Astrophysics and Cosmology.

The speakers – all of whom have earned distinguished positions in their respective arenas of the academic world – commented on the inspiration that pushed them to go into their respective fields, the challenges of being a woman academic, and ideas for encouraging girls to pursue careers in science and mathematics.

They did not discuss in depth the issues which discourage girls from completing a degree in science, or from ever pursuing it in the first place. All three, however, acknowledged that they had supportive family members and mentors along the way toward their success.

“I didn’t have time to think about all the [gender] issues,” said Barrington, referring to time and energy she spent propelling herself into her career.

Although Kaspi herself has not encountered gender-related obstacles, she conceded to knowing many women who were forced out of their fields.

“I’d love to do interviews with all the women who left science, because then you’d see what went wrong,” Kaspi said.

The talk turned to the question of balancing motherhood and careers in science, ironic seeing as Kaspi mentioned that she faces pressure to consider the implications of her successful career on the amount of time she spends with her newborn child.

Barrington and Kaspi did point to the challenge of motherhood as one of the physically and mentally taxing challenges that women are biologically required to take on to a greater degree than men.

Even with men picking up chores of cooking and carpool duty, there is a minimum level of involvement required on the woman’s part to have a child, Barrington pointed out.

“Men can’t nurse,” Barrington said.

In inspiring girls to pursue careers in science, the panelists agreed that encouragement and the availability of opportunities, such as science fairs, are key, and Kaspi, who has two daughters in elementary school, said she hopes to help establish a science fair program at her children’s school.

Kaspi also provides steady encouragement to her daughters to build the confidence that they will need to succeed in any field that they choose, science or not. Guo suggested a greater presence of female role models.

“We need to acknowledge female physicists. It’s not just the canonical example Madame Curie,” Gau said.

Barrington agreed, suggesting that the work place is better off with a female presence.

“It’s in the interest of all organizations to have women at the top – you need a balance,” Barrington said.