March 8, 2019Print | PDF
Good morning everyone and happy International Women’s Day!
I would like to thank the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce for inviting me to deliver this keynote today.
It is an honour to share my thoughts and experiences with all of you.
I want to begin by celebrating some of the strides women around the world have made in the last 12 months in the pursuit of gender equity:
Last year, in the United States, a record number of women stepped forward to run for seats in the House of Representatives and a record number of women – 102 – were elected.
In Mexico’s elections last year, women took 51 per cent of the Senate and 49 per cent of the House. Mexico is now the only country in the world with an elected senate that is majority female.
We also saw New Zealand’s prime minister become the world’s first elected nation’s leader to take maternity leave; SLIDE 5 and the U.S. Senate change longstanding rules to allow newborns on the Senate floor to accommodate mothers.
For the first time in history, the world’s two largest stock exchanges – Nasdaq and the New York Stock Exchange – are now led by women.
In sporting accomplishments, Kendall Coyne Schofield became the first woman to participate in the NHL’s all-star skills competition, finishing less than a second behind the fastest skater in the NHL.
In the arts, Esi Edugyan (Essy Ed-oo-jan) won her second Giller Prize for Washington Black – becoming one of only three authors in history to win Canada’s top literary award twice, in addition to being the first black woman to win the award.
In business, Linda Hasenfratz, CEO of Guelph-based Linamar, was named Canada’s Outstanding CEO of the year. She was also named to the Order of Canada.
Finally, closer to home in Waterloo, physicist Dr. Donna Strickland became the first woman in 55 years to win the Nobel Prize in Physics.
It’s incredible to think that all of this has happened in just the last 12 months.
This is truly an inspiring time for women.
These strides forward benefit all of us.
This is the theme for International Women’s Day 2019: Balance for Better.
Balance for Better doesn’t just mean better for women.
There is significant evidence that demonstrates gender equity improves quality of life for all of us.
Societies become more resilient.
We gain new perspectives in business and research.
Balance for Better is a call-to-action for driving gender balance around the world in pursuit of a better world.
It is an opportunity for all of us to stand up and question the status quo.
The progress we have made is not accidental. It is the result of generations of women – and men – supporting each other and demanding better.
As a scientist and university president, I often see the gender imbalance in my own fields.
In Canada, only 20% of universities have a woman as president. Women comprise less than 40% of graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM programs. SLIDE 16 Engineering in particular lags behind, with women only accounting for 22% of graduates.
And women make up only 25% of those who sit on boards in Canada.
There have been times I have been the only woman in a lab, or seated at a boardroom table.
Any woman who has been in this position knows that it takes effort to not succumb to imposter syndrome – that feeling that you don’t belong.
It’s not hard to understand why.
When you don’t see many people like yourself in similar positions, you begin to question if you should be there either.
It wasn’t that long ago – the 1990s to be exact – that I became only the second woman to land a tenure-track faculty position in the biology department at the University of New Brunswick Saint John.
The first woman had only been hired the year before me.
As the only two women in the department, we were magnets for female students seeking mentorship from women who could be role models for their aspirations.
It was at this time I realized the great responsibility of being one of the few women in the position that I held.
I had to reach back and support the young women who were coming behind me.
I had to also support, through leadership, my peers. I had to build networks of women and men with common goals of equity and inclusion.
It is more than telling women they belong in board rooms and labs and in seats in parliament. It is supporting the steps it takes to get there, for everyone to realize their potential.
This is how we achieve gender balance.
Now, this doesn’t mean we paint a picture of sunshine and roses for young women who aspire to these roles.
Rather, it’s important we speak frankly about our successes, and also of the challenges we’ve faced and the barriers we’ve overcome.
It’s in this sharing of experience that we realize we are not alone.
We can work together to find solutions, shift attitudes and culture, and change policies and law.
There is power in shared experience.
Just look at the #MeToo movement.
Women sharing their stories resulted in a major cultural shift.
It made senior leaders in business and government reflect deeply on their policies and work cultures.
Almost a year after the #MeToo movement began, Harvard Business Review surveyed readers to determine insights into its impact.
Forty five per cent of women who responded said that they now feel safer sharing stories of harassment or harm that they have experienced.
This is what breaking down barriers looks like.
We must find our collective strength and work together to push for progress.
In 2017, Hillary Clinton delivered an International Women’s Day address at an event in Washington.
This was mere months after she lost the presidential election.
Regardless of your views on her politics, she demonstrates a common trait that leaders – including women leaders – need to build – that of resiliency.
In the face of a humbling defeat, she was able to share a message of strength that I hope will inspire us all today. She said:
“Sometimes the road to progress can feel like it’s two steps forward, one step back, particularly when it comes to advancing the rights, opportunities, and full participation of women and girls. It can seem discouraging, whether you’ve been on that road for a long time or are just starting out. But think how different the world would be if the people who came before us had not just gotten discouraged, but because of that, had given up.”
Today, on International Women’s Day, I encourage you to reflect on Hillary Clinton’s words and think about those who have laid the foundation for gender equity and inclusion.
We have so many great examples of women who have challenged the status quo and refused to give up.
In Canada, I think about where we would be if Emily Howard Stowe had walked away from her dream of becoming a doctor when the vice principal at the Toronto School of Medicine told her that “the doors of the university are not open to women and I trust they never will be.”
Where would we be if the Famous Five had just given up after the Supreme Court of Canada rejected their request to recognize women in the definition of ‘persons’ in the British North America Act?
What if the first women to represent Canada in the Olympic Games in 1928 had listened to the warnings of doctors who cautioned that such strenuous physical activity would damage their reproductive organs?
What if Viola Desmond had just spent the night in jail, paid her fine and not said anything more about the injustice of people being segregated in a movie theatre based on the colour of their skin?
What if neuroscientist Dr. Lillian Dyck, Canada’s first female First Nations senator and one of the first Indigenous women in Canada to pursue an academic career in the sciences, had listened to her elementary school teachers who originally placed her in the “slow” room at school?
On this day, I hope you find inspiration from some of these stories that I’ve shared.
Better yet, find inspiration from the people you know – your colleagues, your mothers, aunts, grandmothers, nieces and daughters, and the women and men and organizations who have supported them.
It is likely you have your own stories to share.
I encourage you to talk about your experiences so that we can all learn from and be inspired by each other.
I also challenge everyone here to think about how you can move the needle forward on equity
It doesn’t need to be a grand gesture or public event.
Sometimes it’s sharing words of encouragement to your daughter or niece who is unsure about pursuing science classes.
Sometimes it’s speaking up if you hear a sexist remark.
It can be as simple as giving a pep talk to a colleague who needs that extra support to pursue a promotion or ask for a raise.
Watershed moments of progress are often the result of small actions like these that shift attitudes and build to a turning point.
Despite the gains we’ve made in gender equity, there is still much work to do.
I’ve already shared with you some of the successes.
Let’s now look at the areas that need work:
According to UNESCO, there are still 65 million girls worldwide who, each year, are denied access to education.
Of the 774 million people in the world who are illiterate, two-thirds of that number are women.
This lack of access to education doesn’t just impact economic opportunity for women.
Education for girls improves the well-being of the entire community.
Research shows that every additional year of a woman’s schooling is associated with a 5 to 10 per cent decline in child deaths.
And a number of studies have found a strong correlation between levels of conflict and gender inequality.
Even in Canada, there is still much work to be done.
In 2017, Girl Guides Canada commissioned a nationwide survey of 15-17 year old girls to identify the key issues facing teenage girls in our country.
In the survey, 59% of girls said they feel pressure from society to conform to unrealistic standards about what it means to “be a girl.”
41% of respondents said they know a girl who reported being harassed but wasn’t believed.
Almost 40% of girls had avoided or stopped an activity or sport they like because not many girls participate.
Finally, one in four girls said they don’t know any female role models who have their dream job.
This final statistic is particularly resonant with me as a scientist because of the dearth of women in some STEM fields.
At Laurier, this is an area where we are actively trying to move the needle on gender balance.
In 2012, we established the Centre for Women in Science.
This centre provides programming from casual peer meetups, to organized events, and offers scholarships to students who are travelling to conferences to present their research work.
Additionally, the Centre for Women in Science bridges the gap between social science and the STEM fields, supporting research to better understand why it is that women are not equally represented in these fields and why the rates of attrition are so high.
By approaching these issues from an interdisciplinary perspective, the Centre supports research that helps develop policies to close the gap. Already our centre has provided support in this area to the federal government and UNESCO.
It is my hope that as the body of knowledge and data in this area grows, we will be able to develop overarching strategies that address the gap and reduce attrition rates of women in these fields.
It was two years ago that at Laurier we used our own data to address equity issues at the university.
Following a gender equity analysis, we found that senior female faculty were making less than their male counterparts.
This led to a salary increase for those senior female faculty and a change to the system to ensure pay equity moving forward.
The University of Waterloo did a similar review in 2016 and increased the pay of their female faculty as well.
This type of data-driven policy is key in addressing the gender gaps in our society.
While sharing our stories and supporting each other can help push progress, it is data and research that convince governments and businesses to implement policies and programs that will bring about gender balance.
Sometimes a good old-fashioned march helps, too.
After all, International Women’s Day traces its roots to 1908, when 15,000 women marched through New York City, demanding voting rights, better pay, and shorter working hours.
We can all do something in support of gender equity.
Always remember that we are clearing the path for the next generation.
If we commit to pushing for progress, one day in the future, the generation coming behind us will be celebrating our achievements on March 8th.
Thank you again for inviting me to share my experiences and thoughts with you.
I hope that today – and every day – you feel inspired by the stories of those who reached behind them to pull up those following behind.
And I hope that you use this inspiration to continue this good work.
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