by Margaret Ann Armour, 70 PhD
Early in 1982 the late Dr. J. Gordin Kaplan, who was then serving as the vice-president (research) at the University of Alberta, attended a seminar on microprocessors. This seemingly commonplace event was to prove an important occasion for women at the University of Alberta, for Dr. Kaplan noted that although the room was packed there was only one woman in the audience. Already concerned by the low participation of women in careers in the sciences and engineering, Dr. Kaplan decided that action was necessary. Returning to campus he brought a number of people together to form a committee to promote the participation of women in all scholarly disciplines. He also contributed name for the new group: WISEST — Women in Scholarship, Engineering Science and Technology.
As it has evolved the WISEST committee has about 20 members, including academic staff, students, professional engineers, representatives from Alberta Education, the Alberta Women's Secretariat and other educators. The mandate of the committee is to initiate action to increase the percentage of women in decision-making roles in all fields of scholarship. Since women are markedly under-represented in the sciences and engineering, many of the studies and actions of WISEST to date have concentrated on these fields.
While Dr. Kaplan was the catalyst which brought WISEST together, without two other factors WISEST would not have been able to function as it has. One is the groundwork laid over the years by several dedicated women at the University of Alberta; the second is the active support of the current administration.
Once established WISEST began by gathering data. A study showed that at the University of Alberta in December 1981 only 19 per cent of the academic staff was female. In the Faculty of Science it was five per cent, and in the Faculty of Engineering, two per cent. This proportion was similar to that at many other academic institutions across Canada. Was this in any way reflective of ability? Clearly not: when undergraduate student grades during the period 1970-71 to 1981-82 were compared it was found that in every faculty — including science and engineering-females scored as well as, or better than, their male peers. But was the comparison slanted; were the females benefitting from having the top females (the small percentage who went on to university) compared to a broader cross-section of males? It seemed not, for the results held even in a faculty such as Business as the proportion of female undergraduates grew from five per cent in 1970-71 to 40 per cent in 1981-82. Armed with information such as this, WISEST was ready to take action.
Many factors are identified in the literature as affecting the career aspirations of women. Several of these factors were addressed when WISEST founded the UAYs (University of Alberta Women in Science and Engineering) to foster mutual support among women undergraduates, graduate students and staff, and to provide information and encouragement to students, helping them to set their goals and reach them. The UAYs meet monthly during the fall and winter terms and a newsletter is published regularly and sent to more than 500 people. Panel discussions on topics such as "Choosing a Graduate School and a Research Director", "Gender Role Development" and "Women in Non-traditional Occupations" have been held, as well as a number of informal discussions and workshops. The distinguished speakers that the group has sponsored include author Evelyn Fox Keller; Rose Sheinin, vice-dean of graduate studies at the University of Toronto; Nobel Laureate Rosalyn Yalow; Ursula Franklin, university professor in engineering at the University of Toronto; and Anna Harrison, the first female president of the American Chemical Society.
Another ongoing UAYs program reaches into the secondary schools where career decisions are being made. During six weeks of July and August local students, female and male, in their next-to-final year of high school are given the opportunity to be a part of one of a number of research groups at the University. The girls work in the Faculties of Science and Engineering, and the boys in the Faculties of Home Economics and Nursing. The response has been positive from both students and supervisors and the experience has led several of the girls to choose post-secondary education in engineering or science because of their summer experience.
WISEST itself has hosted three conferences: in 1984 "Steps to a Scientific Career"; in 1986, a joint conference with the Association for the Advancement of Science in Canada entitled "Confronting Technophobia;" and this spring, "Insure Your Future with RSPs: Rewarding Science Programs" for high school students. The meetings have each attracted about 400 high school students, undergraduates, and professional scientists and engineers. They provided an opportunity for those in attendance to listen to women speak of their research in the sciences and engineering, to meet informally with women in non-traditional careers, and to participate in professional development workshops.
There has been action on other fronts as well. A member of WISEST has compiled A Bibliography on Women in Pure and Applied Science. The work contains more than 2,000 entries and is maintained online on the SPIRES database management system on the Amdahl mainframe computer at the University of Alberta.
In May of 1985 WISEST, along with four other groups, became a founding member of Canadian Women in Engineering, Science and Technology. The other constituent groups are the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST),based in Vancouver; the Association of Women Engineers (AWE), based in Calgary; the Canadian Association for Women in Science (CAWIS), based in Toronto; and Women in Science and Engineering (WISE), also Toronto-based. All of these groups have similar mandates, and perhaps the most important functions of the fledgling CWEST are encouraging networking among the members across the country and providing a means to present briefs and lobby as a united group. To further these ends, joint conferences at two-year intervals are planned. The first such conference, "Alert to the Future", was held in Calgary with AWE acting as the host organization.
Why are so many people giving of their time and effort to increase the number of women in the sciences and engineering? There are several reasons. Firstly we believe in equality of opportunity for all members of our society. Secondly, especially in Alberta, dependent as we are on non-renewable natural resources, we need to make full use of our most important natural resource, our brain-power. Thirdly, many traditional women's jobs — switchboard operators, stenographers, and so on — are disappearing, and the new jobs require technological training. Fourthly, men have traditionally been expected to provide a good standard of living for their families; if it becomes accepted that women can have careers which allow them to share this role to a greater extent, pressure would be lifted from men. And finally, it is our expectation that increasing the number of women practicing in the sciences, engineering and technology will foster nurturing practices and increased concern for human values in these fields.
Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour is a native of Scotland who earned BSc and MSc degrees in chemistry at the University of Edinburgh and worked in industry prior to coming to Alberta for her PhD studies. She is a faculty service officer in the department of chemistry, responsible for that department's undergraduate teaching laboratories for organic chemistry. Dr. Armour has been involved in WISEST since its inception.
The preceding article is based on her May 3, 1988 address to the annual meeting of the Friends of the University of Alberta. At the business portion of the meeting it was announced that the Friends' newly-created Jeanne Sauvé Undergraduate Scholarship (Faculty of Arts) valued at $1,200 will be awarded annually, on a proficiency basis, to a third-year student, and that Stephen Lewis, who was Canada's ambassador to the UN, will deliver the Friends' 1988 Henry Marshall Tory Lecture on November 23 in SUB Theatre.
Published Autumn 1988.