Gender parity in science, technology, and beyond: another rebuttal to Margaret Wente

I’ve been told that columnists like the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente are encouraged to present controversial opinions in the hopes of increasing readership.  I can assure the G&M that nobody I know buys the Globe to find out what Wente has to say; in fact most of us read the G&M because of few other options.  But I digress.



This past week, one of Wente’s columns was entitled “Gender parity trumps excellence in science?”.   In it, she denounced in the most sarcastic tones the recommendations of a newly released report by a committee chaired by Dr. Lorna Marsden, former president of two Canadian universities, called “Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension”.  As you might guess, the report included recommendations that attempt to address the low proportion of women in science and applied science.  Wente concludes her column by saying, “And if some of those fields are dominated by men, so what?”.  Actually, it sounds like Ms. Wente can’t imagine why any women would want to study science, so why worry about it.  She includes a caveat that comes across as, “Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are scientists.”

I actually don’t disagree with some of Wente’s points.  When there is a shortage of research funding, which is almost always the case, of course it shouldn’t be supporting weaker science if that’s what it were to take to ensure females are included.  However, the issue is so much complicated than that.  Before concluding that maybe men should stick to science and engineering, where they’re happier, and women to kindergarten, where they’re happier, she should have read another article in the G&M, also from this past week. She could have learned from the wisdom of one of Canada’s great computer scientists and sorely missed exports, Dr. Maria Klawe.  Dr. Klawe, currently president of Harvey Mudd College in California, was liberally quoted in “To keep women in science, think small”.  Along with stories by Klawe and others about the on-going efforts to put a human face on science and technology that resonates with young women, she speaks of the “entrenched interviewing, hiring, and award selection practices [that] are unintentionally disadvantaging qualified female candidates.”  And this is the point I believe Wente completely misses: to ensure that females are empowered to contribute to their full potential, ingrained cultural norms need to change.

Dr. Klawe describes a pro-active approach she suggested to department chairs when she was dean of science at the University of British Columbia.  Departments developed lists of women anywhere in the world who might be interested in moving to UBC and then invited them to come for week-long visits and give talks.  With that approach, 6 new female faculty members joined the science faculty.  But subsequent to her leaving UBC to become Princeton’s first female dean of engineering and applied science, this “trend” at UBC has reversed.  As Dr. Klawe explained, “Most people want to do the right thing … It wasn’t that they didn’t want to hire women.  It’s just that they stopped paying attention.”

Men have been in charge – of corporations, of universities, of governments (not to mention religious institutions) – for a very long time.  They play basketball together (pick your sport), they learn the lingo, they tell “guy” jokes, they understand their modus operandi, and they share the “tricks of the trade.”  Even a seemingly simple thing like negotiating for your salary is something that men understand early on and women don’t.  Women don’t have experience “trying out for the team”, and after a few make the team, unless there is a continued commitment to inclusion by the coach, once the new teammates leave the team falls back on its customary ways.  I have watched this happen at my own university, and it’s very discouraging.  As Dr. Klawe reminds us in her comments, continued cultural change requires vigilance and leadership.

Margaret Wente’s uninformed dismissal of gender disparity in the initial round of Canada Research Chairs is a case in point.  How sad that she used this particular example, since in my opinion she got it very wrong.  This program was a worthy government effort established to add strength to Canada’s research capacity at universities across the country; the first recipients were all men – 19 men.  Wente is right that it was a PR nightmare; where we disagree is that she doesn’t seem to think it should have been seen that way.  Maybe not if the process had been an open, clearly accessible one.  But it wasn’t.  This program was very competitive and people worked hard at each university to identify star researchers.  We were looking for people outside the country or outside academia who would be able to put together a research program that would complement existing expertise or a strategic fit to regional economic or social issues, and who could be convinced to move to your university.  It also had to be seen as not poaching from other Canadian universities.  The process ended up being largely what one would expect; people contacted others who they knew and asked them to apply.  Mostly men contacted mostly men.  That’s just the way it happens.  Not just because all the best researchers were men, as Ms. Wente intimated.  For sure there were, and still are, more male researchers in these fields, but there are female stars.  They don’t necessarily build the same kinds of networks, so don’t pop into someone’s mind when an opportunity arises.  And that is a large part of the rub.  We all have to work at it, until we don’t have to work at it anymore.


The point Wente misses is related to the issues around renewed discussions about whether more jurisdictions should bring in quotas to increase female representation on corporate boards.  The same mindset is in play, the same Catch-22.  I do believe that, as Dr. Klawe said, “Most people want to do the right thing.”  But if boards make rules that you have to be a CEO to be on the board, and there are no female CEOs in their domain, that’s not a terribly convincing argument for only having men.  Maybe the definition of who you want on your board, and why, should be reconsidered.  Many countries have brought in a quota requirement, most of which were fought against, including by women, who would of course rather be judged on merit alone.  And in every case reported, after a few years it has become a non-issue.  Women have been identified and mentored just like men.  They have been found to bring a different perspective to decision making that adds considerable value.  In the process they have become part of the decision-making process, which is where they have not been.

We have come a long way, but we still have a long path ahead of us.  Having women involved in science, innovation, decision making, and leadership roles can only help give our societies even better science, innovation, and decision making. Having Margaret Wente, who has wide public exposure, write that this doesn’t matter is disheartening in the extreme.

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3 Responses to Gender parity in science, technology, and beyond: another rebuttal to Margaret Wente

  1. Pingback: Gender parity in science, technology, and beyond: another rebuttal to Margaret Wente « New Brunswick Women in ICT

  2. A.M.B. says:

    Excellent post! You are so right: “to ensure that females are empowered to contribute to their full potential, ingrained cultural norms need to change.” I have evaluated tenure cases in male-dominated fields in which female candidates were denied promotion. It’s clear that many in the positions of power in departments believe that women are inherently not good enough and that they should be spending more time at home or in other, less math-oriented parts of the field. The cultural attitudes need to shift.


    • Jane Fritz says:

      I’m very interested to hear of your experiences. It seems to be the case in many domains, but it’s particularly sad to know it happens in my own “world”, one where people are supposed to be enlightened! Nobody is looking for a free ride, but expectations seem to be problematic. I think we women need to figure out how to mentor and network a lot better than we currently do. We’re only now realizing that it’s even necessary. Thank you for your comments.


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