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This document provides a comprehensive summary of an invited plenary presentation made by
Dr. Valerie Davidson, NSERC/HP Chair for Women in Science and Engineering for Ontario, to
the Ro
yal Society of Canada Conference (RCSC) in Edmonton, Alberta on May 3, 2007. The
conference was designed to offer an international forum for discussion of the factors within local
and global cultures that can facilitate and constrain women's active partici
pation in the
knowledge economy and society. The theme of the 2007 conference was ‘Rooms of their Own

Women in the Knowledge Economy and Society.’ This theme was borrowed from Virginia
Woolf’s cogent essay “A Room of One’s Own” on the unfortunate societa
l constrictions suffered
by professional women in her time. In this 1929 essay, Wolfe predicted that women “in another
century or so,” if given the opportunity and rooms of their own, would “have the habit of
freedom and the courage to write exactly what
we think,” seeing human beings “in their relation
to each other” and “in relation to reality. Drawing on these ideas, it was the goal of the RCSC
conference to engage in an in
depth consideration of the situation of women in the academy. It
was hoped that

this would serve to increase awareness about the challenges facing women in
academia, expand the knowledge base on such issues and result in the formation of practical
recommendations to address them. Dr. Davidson’s presentation spoke to these themes.

Plenary Abstract:

The NSERC program of regional Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering has broad
objectives to address both the need to encourage girls and women into science and engineering
programs and careers as well as to retain women as valuable

contributors to science and
engineering. The Chairs are role models as well as focal points for thinking about the challenges
in increasing the participation of women in science and engineering and for acting more broadly.

The plenary presentation foc
uses on the national network of Chairs and our collaborations with
other academics and advocacy organizations that share similar goals. Over the last three years
we have been building a national alliance to:


create new knowledge about the impediments to t
he participation of women in post
secondary programs and careers in the sciences and engineering at Canadian universities
through investigation of social and organization processes that is truly interdisciplinary,


develop, implement and evaluate strategies

and mechanisms which actively contribute to
increases in the participation of women in science and engineering as students and as
professionals, and


build a strong and sustainable national alliance that includes women in science and
engineering and their
advocates to support a knowledge mobilization strategy for
sustained change.





When I read my invitation, I thought that the organizers of this conference had chosen a very
intriguing theme. It create
d an invitation for me to re
visit Virginia Woolf’s essay and to use her
observations about the obstacles and prejudices that hindered women writers as a springboard to
open up a conversation about some of the current issues for women in science and engine

Outside of our rooms: Networkin
g across the academy

Davidson, V.J.

Although my presentation will be a one
way flow, I hope that there will be opportunities to
develop two
way conversations later

either at the end of this presentation or at other times
during the next few days.

I recognize that there are differ
ences in the context of the professional lives of scientists and
engineers compared to those of writers. Virginia Woolf saw the writer’s need for a room of one’s
own as a way to facilitate the creative process. Since writing would usually be done in one’
home, it was more difficult for a woman because domestic issues interfered with her focus on
writing. By being alone in her own space, she could engage in the creative work of writing
without interruptions

In contrast, the professional lives of most sci
entists and engineers are carried out in rooms outside
of the home

in places such as laboratories, design offices and field sites. Very few scientists
and engineers work in isolation; the norm is to collaborate and to work together in groups. Since
professional work relies on networks, I instinctively consulted with several colleagues as I
prepared for this talk.

At the last international conference of the Gender and Science and Technology Association, I had
a conversation with Sue Lewis who is fa
culty member at Swinburne University in Melbourne.
She suggested that I read Jane Dunn’s book entitled “A Very Close Conspiracy
Vanessa Bell and
Virginia Woolf
” to learn more about Virginia. Vanessa was Virginia’s older sister and, as the
title of the bo
ok suggests, their relationship was very close. Vanessa was a prominent artist in the
Bloomsbury group and this is one of her paintings

titled “A Conversation” and showing three
women rapt in discussion. After seeing the painting again in a 1928 exhibi
tion, Virginia wrote to
her sister and said “I think that you are a most remarkable painter … I wonder if I could write the
Three Women in prose.”

The painting and the relationship between the two sisters made me
think about the nature and value of conve
rsations among women and the value of networks as
entities to enable diverse conversations

particularly when they take us outside of our familiar

I want to acknowledge and thank the Courtauld Institute of Art for giving me permission to use
s image of Vanessa Bell’s painting here today.

I also read “A Room of One’s Own” again and the beginning of the essay resonated more
strongly with me this time. Virginia Woolf is in a bit of a dither about the task that she is facing

a prestigious in
vitation to speak about women and fiction and she expresses the worry that she
will not be able to fulfill the first duty of a lecturer. This, she explains, is to hand the audience,
“after an hour’s discourse, a nugget of pure truth to wrap between your n
otebooks and keep on
the mantelpiece forever”
. She admits that the best that she can offer is an opinion and of course
this is what I will offer

my observations about the participation of women in science and
engineering in Canadian universities and my

opinions on ways to effect change.

My introduction provides you with some context for my “opinions”. By training I am an
engineer and I have spent most of my professional life in the academic world as an educator and


Jane Dunn,
A Very Close Conspiracy
Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf

(London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1990) 1


Virginia Woolf,
A Room of One’s Own
, 13

Impression (London: The Hogarth Press, 1959) 6.


Outside of our rooms: Networking across the academy

Davidson, V.J.

a researcher. My training and my
professional career to date have spanned about thirty
five years

which means that when I enrolled in engineering there were very few women in my
undergraduate classes and even fewer in graduate school. Furthermore there were no female
professors as rol
e models along my path. In thinking back now I realize that from the age of 11, I
have not had a female teacher for science, mathematics or engineering classes.

On the other hand, I am the eldest in a family of four daughters and like Virginia I value

connections to and support from my siblings. I was an adolescent as second wave feminism was
emerging. I remember hearing Laura Sabia speak at a local high school when she was President
of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. She wa
s definitely a “firebrand”

not afraid to say exactly what she thought about controversial issues. For me she set an example
of a “different voice”

one that was strongly linked to political action.

At the time that I entered university in the early
1970s, the participation of women in post
secondary education was significant and it has risen now to a national average that is well above
50%. Unlike Virginia Woolf’s experience at Oxbridge, there was no Beadle protecting the
campus green space for male

fellows and scholars when I started undergraduate studies.
However I do have a vivid memory from my first day on campus. I remember walking around the
corner of the engineering building to join the rest of the frosh for the ritual of orientation. Now in

the registration line I had been assured that there would be other female students at the event.
However as I turned the corner of the building, all I could see was a very large crowd

more than 500 people

and they were all males. I remember

clearly feeling the classic “fight or
flight reactions”

racing heart and tight stomach

but I did continue walking and I joined the
group. The fact that men dominated this space was not going to prevent me from exploring it.

As Virginia was waved aw
ay from the scholars’ space at Oxbridge, she thought “One must be
something of a firebrand to say to oneself “Literature is open to everybody. I refuse to allow you,
Beadle though you are, to turn me off the grass.”

Although the overall participation of

in post
secondary education has increased substantially since Virginia wrote her essay, it has
taken the community and the academy much longer to ask the question

do women still need to
be “firebrands” to have the courage to enter certain rooms of

science and engineering?

By virtue of her social class and her financial stability, Virginia was in a privileged position to
make the assumption about her right to access the scholars’ space.

I recognize that I speak from
a position of privilege

ased on my place of birth, race and social class. My parents placed a
high value on education for all of their children and I knew at an early age that the doors to a
university education would be open. My mother made it clear that she was willing to mak
financial sacrifices to pay for university education but not for a big wedding. In surveys that I
have conducted, I consistently find that parents are one of the most important influences on their
children’s decisions to choose science and engineering
programs. This finding often surprises
parents but it is one of the reasons that I spend a significant amount of time talking to them about
opportunities in science and engineering.

At several points through my career, mentors have helped me by pointin
g to new opportunities. I
know that mentors were key influences on my decision to pursue graduate studies and to continue


Virginia Woolf,
A Room of One’s Own
, 13

Impression (London: The Hogarth Press, 1959) 113.


Outside of our rooms: Networkin
g across the academy

Davidson, V.J.

on a career path where I did not meet many women. My early mentors were male and they
understood the culture

academic and professi

in ways that my family did not. They
encouraged me to recognize my strengths and to follow my own path.

As a university professor, I participate in and contribute to a privileged knowledge society.
Teaching and research are creative activities
that provide a considerable amount of personal
satisfaction. The Chair for Women in Science and Engineering is also a position of privilege
because it allows me the freedom to participate in broader conversations and to focus on activities
to increase th
e participation of women, particularly those in the next generation of students,
professionals and leaders who may not have an implicit invitation to participate in the knowledge
society as I did.

As I said at the beginning, my professional work relies on

networks and collaboration and I
recognized that I would need to develop new networks to effective as the Ontario Chair. What I
did not appreciate was how broadly the networks would reach across the academy. This morning
I will tell you about these new

networks and why I see them as important spaces for discussing
and addressing the under
representation of women in science and engineering in Canada.


As a women academic in engineering, I am a minority

the national lev
el for engineering
faculties is just above 10%. Over the 21 years of my academic career, progress to increase the
presence of women has been limited at all levels of participation. More disturbingly we are
seeing declining undergraduate enrolments in engi
neering and particular science sub
such as computer science. Like many others in this room, I am frustrated by the statistics that
indicate the continued under
representation of women in engineering, mathematics and the
physical sciences and
I recognise the need to modify our action plans.

We are not alone

there is consensus among many stakeholder groups within and outside of
Canada that there must be renewed efforts to increase the presence of women at all levels in
science and engineeri
ng. The opportunity for women to participate fully is now a significant
societal expectation. First, research and awareness of the strengths of

have demonstrated
that women bring different perspectives and experience allowing more creative and i
solutions to emerging challenges and problems. Second,
equity and social responsibility

that we address issues of inclusion and structured access to opportunities and resources related to
gender, class and racialized status. Third, women
’s participation is simply a
requirement for
economic development

The knowledge economy and the academy, as a player in the knowledge
society, cannot flourish without the contributions of women. Their participation is necessary to
ensure that technologic
al innovations meet the needs and reflect the values of all members of
society and to ensure that there is a sufficient pool of skilled innovators to drive economic
development in Canada.

he Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) is
the national instrument for
making strategic investments in Canada's capability in science and technology. This includes
investments in people, discovery and innovation. One of the ways that NSERC is addressing the
representation of women in scien
ce and engineering is through the regional Chairs for

Outside of our rooms: Networking across the academy

Davidson, V.J.

Women in Science and Engineering
The mandate of this program is broad with objectives to
address both the need to encourage girls and women into science and engineering careers, and to
retain women as

valuable contributors to science and engineering. The Chairs are role models as
well as focal points for thinking about the challenges for increasing the participation of women in
science and engineering and acting more broadly. This program has been ope
rating for a decade
now and the women who were regional Chairs for the first five years are a remarkable group.

This picture was taken at one of their meetings and from left to right you see:

Dr. Mary Williams

the Atlantic region chair and an applied

Dr. Elizabeth Cannon

the Prairie region chair and an engineer in the field of geomatics;

Dr. Claire Deschênes is sitting in the middle and she is a mechanical engineer. Claire was the
Quebec chair for 8 years so she was very important in

helping to make the transition to the
second group of Chairs.

Dr. Maria Klawe was the Chair for British Columbia and the Yukon and she is a computer

Dr. Monique Frize was a pioneer. She held the first Chair for Women in Science and
g when there was only one position for the entire country. When the program was
expanded to five regional chairs, she became the Ontario Chair. Monique is a biomedical

As individuals and as a group, they had the courage to speak out and effe
ct change. Their
contributions and successes have built a strong reputation for the Chairs’ program and this opens
doors for the chairs that follow. They continue to be outstanding role models as researchers and
as leaders in senior administrative pos
itions. Mary Williams has been a mentor at different points
in my career and I remember one of our conversations when she was encouraging me to consider
the Ontario Chair. She said “You have met all of the Chairs; we’re all different. Don’t be afraid
follow your own path.”

I became the first member of the second group of Chairs when I was awarded the Ontario chair in
2003. As of last November, we now have complete representation across all regions in Canada.
The other four Chairs are also remarkabl
e women:

Dr. Anne Condon (British Columbia and Yukon) is a computer scientist;

Dr. Julita Vassileva (Prairie region) is also a computer scientist;

Dr. Nadia Ghazzali (Quebec) is a statistician, and

Dr. Cecilia Moloney (Atlantic region) is an electrical and

computer engineer.

The five of us form a true network in that we share information and strategies and we work
together to have stronger impact at a national level.

Three of the five chairs are able to participate in this conference so we took advantag
e of the
opportunity and met as a group on Tuesday. We did get a group picture and, in addition to
myself, Cecilia and Anne, you see Janice DeMoor and Monika Michalska sitting at the right hand
end of the group. Janice is the coordinator for our national

network of chairs. Monika is the
NSERC program officer for the regional chairs program. We have been fortunate that there are a
number of NSERC staff who are committed to achieving the goals of this program and they
provide invaluable support for the Ch
airs’ initiatives.


Outside of our rooms: Networkin
g across the academy

Davidson, V.J.

Julita Vassileva is on a sabbatical leave this year and she is working in Pittsburgh this week but
she was able join our discussion through a Skype connection. One of the challenges for all of us
is to balance our teaching and resear
ch with activities related to our chair program; the nominal
balance is 50:50. Since our work is spread across these multiple rooms, it is important that we
use broader networks to accomplish our goals.

The title of my talk

“Outside of our rooms”

ludes to the spaces we create outside of our
individual disciplines in science and engineering and the connections that we create within and
outside of our geographic regions. We collaborate, as individual chairs and as a national

of chairs, with
advocacy organizations that share similar goals. We also recognize the
need to expand the conversations to include social science researchers if we hope to understand
and remove the barriers to women’s full participation in science and engineering.



Over the last three years, the five regional chairs and a multidisciplinary group of researchers
have been working to build a
national alliance

to address the under
representation of women in
science and en
gineering. NSERC and the Canadian Coalition of Women in Engineering,
Science, Trades and Technology are key partners in this alliance because both organizations
share the goal of increasing the participation of women and they are linked to communities tha
can effect change. A number of Deans of Science and Engineering and senior administrators are
also partners. We have started with a small research project that is focussed on graduate students
in science and engineering and we have recently submitted a

proposal for a five
year program to
the Community University Research Alliance or CURA program of the Social Sciences and
Humanities Research Council.

It is clear that the ongoing under
representation of women in science and engineering is a
ted and complex issue, which has deep social, cultural, and organizational roots. A
deeper understanding of causes and remedies calls for interdisciplinary efforts. Isolated programs
are not sufficient to effect sustained change. There must be instituti
onal commitment to change.
Thus there is a need for a new level of dialogue among researchers, advocates, and those in
positions to make change. The alliance brings women in science and engineering together with
their advocates to engage in new conversati
ons, and to develop new instruments, and more
nuanced strategies suitable to the complexity of the situation.

Because universities are sites for professional training and graduate education as well as places of
employment for scientists and engineers
, they are deeply implicated in the project to recruit and
retain women in science and engineering. It is in their own best interests to transform attitudes,
practices, and policies to ensure equitable environments. Thus universities will provide the
tion for much of our research. Within a multi
dimensional framework, we will examine
recruitment, retention, and advancement issues for women in undergraduate and graduate studies


The writing in this section is drawn from our proposal to the Co
University Research Alliance program
(Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) “An integrated approach to women in science and engineering:
Focus on the academy”. Professor Ruby Heap (Department of History, University of Ottawa), Linda Haw
(Executive Director, Centre for Families, Work and Well
being, University of Guelph) and I wrote this material as a


Outside of our rooms: Networking across the academy

Davidson, V.J.

as well as in academic careers. We will investigate two spaces, the larger r
oom of the academy

the context and climate that shape outcomes for women students and faculty

and the individual

their personal context, values and goals

and the impact on their attraction to and
retention in study and careers in science and

We developed this framework through a process that will be reflected in its implementation. The
process has brought the scientists and engineers outside the rooms of our disciplines to
understand the research methods of our social science

and it has brought the social
scientists into the rooms of science and engineering which are quite different from their own
academic spaces. Our conversations lead to an appreciation of the contributions of social science
to understanding comp
lex issues. In return, the social scientists develop an increased appreciation
and capacity for working across the academy. Although it has taken some time to develop, these
conversations are necessary to achieve a new level of interdisciplinary research.

Social scientists who have content expertise have worked together with engineers and scientists,
who understand the culture and professional activities, to develop the research activities. The
methodology integrates the quantitative and qualitative resear
ch methods of social scientists to
understand complex issues, and knowledge of social and organizational processes in science and
engineering in order to produce practices and tools on how and when to intervene. These
outcomes will be developed in formats
and language that the community of science and
engineering will understand and can put into practice.

Our framework is embedded in the body of social science and humanities research on gender and
professional identities, and on the current feminist schola
rship on women, gender, and science
and engineering. We have used it to shape our proposed investigations and move beyond early
work based on the “women as deficient” model and the notion of an uninterrupted career
trajectory or “pipeline”. Neither of the
se ideas takes into account the complexity of the
educational and professional processes of becoming a scientist or an engineer, nor the context of
the individual in experiencing other major life course events, such as family formation. Our
explanatory fra
mework will consider the multiple and interconnected factors that influence
education and employment trajectories and the full participation of women in science and

Our research activities will be conducted in four interrelated areas:
transitions, pedagogy,
institutional support,

culture and professional identity.

The themes embedded in these areas
include critical issues around pervasive implicit and explicit gender biases that put women at a
disadvantage in the science and enginee
ring professions, and the construction of science and
engineering as male domains. We will examine how the resulting dominant cultures of these
fields are reflected in classroom curriculum, teaching practices and evaluation methods, as well
as in institut
ional and departmental practices of hiring, tenure and promotion. We will explore
the realities of work
life balance and the extent to which this impacts differently on women’s and
men’s careers as academics in science and engineering.

A woman in Ghana c
reated this painting and I purchased it at a recent fund
raising event for our
student chapter of Engineers Without Borders. These women are balancing heavy pots that they
use to collect water for their families and, because this takes a significant amoun
t of time, they

Outside of our rooms: Networkin
g across the academy

Davidson, V.J.

must carry their young children with them. This integration is work
life balance at its most
fundamental level.

I see a comparable challenge for young female academics who must balance teaching, research
and service activities, at a tim
e that, for many, coincides with child
bearing and raising young
children. However there are other situations, such as major illness of a family member or aging
parents that cause disruptions in women’s careers because they take on these care responsibili
more frequently than men. The problem is that the academic model of the “ideal professor” was
created when the norm was a male faculty member who was fully supported by a spouse who did
not work outside of the home. This model is outdated for most
faculty members, but particularly
for women, and it needs to be changed to provide greater flexibility and better support for
transition periods.

Virginia wanted a room to shut out interruptions. In our professional lives, it is impossible for us
to comp
artmentalize so that the rooms of home and professional life are completely separated.
The concerns flow from one “room” to another despite physical separation.

In our CURA program, we will examine in detail the daily experiences of women faculty
who have been recently hired in science and engineering departments. The research
will consider how organizational structures and gender normative cultural assumptions influence
their day
day decisions and how they perceive the context and the situatio
ns they encounter.
The results of this project will be used to inform several other components of the program. A
working council of deans and administrators from a number of universities will meet together to
examine our research findings and to discuss
the under
representation of women in the context of
cultures and practices within their faculties as well as the broader science and engineering
disciplines. Each of these leaders has agreed to develop and deliver a specific change project
within their ins
titution and to share results with the council. We will also develop a Canadian
inventory of initiatives to change processes and programs within the academy with particular
attention to evidence of success for women in science and engineering. We will br
oadcast the
results and strategies as broadly and in as many formats as possible.

Several additional assumptions will guide our research. First, all of our researchers (both social
science and science and engineering “community” researchers) are
informed by an awareness of
the importance of the
culture and social norms

we operate within. Second, attention to
equity and
social responsibility

requires that we address issues of inclusion and structured access to
opportunities and resources related to

family status, class, ethnic, and racialised

status, and each
researcher will examine these further impacts in their projects. Third, our research activities are
designed to complement and strengthen each other

and most particularly to create


research, partnership and outreach possibilities

throughout the life of the CURA and beyond, to
increase the likelihood of sustained success. This is our ultimate goal

an ongoing conversation
that is a force for change. In much less than Virginia’s hun
dred years, we hope that a woman
does not have to be a firebrand to say to herself “Science and engineering are open to
everybody”. Instead the onus will be on individual departments, on faculties and on institutions to
make this clear to women and to prov
ide equitable opportunities for education and employment
in science and engineering.


Outside of our rooms: Networking across the academy

Davidson, V.J.

Thus, our broad objectives for this work are:

(1) to create new knowledge about the impediments to the participation of women in post
secondary programs and careers i
n sciences and engineering at Canadian universities through
investigation of social and organizational processes that is truly interdisciplinary,

2) to develop, implement, and evaluate strategies and mechanisms which actively contribute to
increases in
the participation of women in science and engineering as students and as
professionals, and

3) to build a strong and sustainable national alliance that includes women in science and
engineering and their advocates to support a knowledge mobilization stra
tegy for sustained

Because its development came from our realities, our rooms, we consider that our integrated and
faceted approach holds the most potential for producing sound empirical knowledge about
the current processes that generate ge
nder differences in science and engineering, for developing
new interventions, and for renewing a sustainable dialogue to support continued efforts for

Virgina Woolf valued conversations with her sister Vanessa Bell. She admired Vanessa’s
g and, in her essay, Virginia uses prose to create a similar image

a conversation between
herself and a friend who taught science. They draw up to a fire in Fernham, with a squat bottle
and little glasses, and “repair some of the damages of the day’s l

through conversation.

A Guelph student who is a member of Engineers Without Borders told me a story related to this
painting. She said that an international aid group had decided to invest in the infrastructure
required to pump water to a centra
l location in one African village. The outsiders who developed
this plan thought that this would save time for the women who spent a minimum of two hours a
day walking to the spring and back. However after using it for a short time, the women
abandoned t
he new location and they returned to their old habit of walking to the spring because
this was a time that they could spend together and have conversations. In their homes they were
isolated from other women and they missed the social networking that hap
pened as they walked
to the spring and back. Their conversations made the domestic task of providing water less

The research alliance will provide us with spaces for conversation outside our rooms: to do as the
conference theme challenges

ve the courage to speak and to write exactly what we think and
to see ourselves in relation to the reality of our work as scientists and engineers. Reality must
include our activities as scientists and engineers and as women with family and social
ibilities. The voices and opinions of women scientists and engineers must be included if
the work of the alliance is to achieve our objectives.

This presentation was developed through many conversations

with the regional Chairs, with the
members of
the alliance and with my good friend Ann Holmes. Ann has taught me many things
about the value of networks and she is definitely a “firebrand”. I know that she will not be
offended by this label because she recognizes that I mean it in the sense of som
eone who ignites


Virginia Woolf,
A Room of One’s Own
, 13

Impression (London: The Hogarth Press, 1959) 28


Outside of our rooms: Networkin
g across the academy

Davidson, V.J.

action and change by challenging gendered assumptions and social orders that are based on these

Thus far it has been a one
way conversation but I invite you to share your thoughts and ideas
with me. I hope that some of you w
ill be interested in participating in the alliance and engaging
in the interesting conversations we are having about women in science and engineering.