Back in April, as I was knee-deep in a trans-Atlantic move, Meg Duffy wrote a post at Dynamic Ecology on the US National Science Foundation’s Waterman Award (a prize for an under-35 scientist/engineer of $1 million), and lamented that the last 11 recipients were men. The comments on that piece were particularly excellent, and included a response from NSF highlighting some of the broader issues of why women tend to be underrepresented in such awards.
Women are also underrepresented at conferences, on editorial boards, face biases when submitting to journals (PDF) and receive smaller grants. In terms of “big awards”, one hurdle is that fewer women tend to be nominated (PDF – $$). So it is with a heavy heart that I add to this mounting evidence the following:
Women have been awarded only 17% of major NSERC awards since 2004.
NSERC, Canada’s national granting body for natural sciences engineering, has six prizes that I would include as “big awards” (which includes both large-value, and low-number/high-exclusivity prizes). Let’s break them down.
André Hamer Postgraduate Prizes
From 2004-2010, there were two awards annually, and from 2011-2013, this was increased to five. They’re relatively low at $10,000 each, and “are awarded to the most outstanding candidates in NSERC’s master’s and doctoral scholarship competitions“. Of the 29 prizes awarded since 2004, women received 13 (45%), which isn’t that bad. Until we realize that this accounts for nearly half the women award winners that I’ll cover in this post. Since the number of prizes was increased in 2011 (n = 15 prizes at 5/year), only 3 women received them (including none in 2013, the last year for which data are available).
Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research
This is usually one award made to multiple people (anywhere from 2-11 in a given year), and there was no 2007 award. The Brockhouse Prize “recognizes outstanding Canadian teams of researchers from different disciplines who came together to engage in research drawing on their combined knowledge and skills, and produced a record of excellent achievements in the natural sciences and engineering in the last six years.”. We can look at these data in two ways: based on the number of awards (1/year), and based on the number of recipients, but as we’ll see it doesn’t make any difference. Of the 9 years from 2004-2013 with an award, women received awards in 2006 and 2012 (2/9 = 11%). Over the same period, 39 people were part of the award-winning teams, 4 of which were women (10%).
EWR Steacie Memorial Fellowships
The Steacie Fellowships are “awarded annually to enhance the career development of outstanding and highly promising scientists and engineers who are faculty members of Canadian universities“, and up to 6 are awarded annually. From 2004-2013, there were 59 recipients, 9 of which were women (15%). Parity occurred only in 2009 (3 women, 3 men), and no women received a Steacie Fellowship in 2004, 2007, or 2012.
Gerhard Herzberg Canada Medal
This is NSERC’s premiere award, often touted in the media as Canada’s “top science prize“, and is for “both the sustained excellence and overall influence of research work conducted in Canada in the natural sciences or engineering“. Of the 10 recipients from 2004-2013, there were no women recipients. In fact, since the award was established in 1991, it has never been awarded to a woman.
John C. Polyani Award
The Polyani Award is a bit trickier, since it can be awarded to groups or consortia for “an individual or team whose Canadian-based research has led to a recent outstanding advance in the natural sciences or engineering“. It’s also only been around since 2006, and in that time, two groups have won the award (with no indication of the gender make-up of the teams), so the analysis is restricted to the 6 years where I could find details on the actual recipients. In that time, there have been 9 recipients, 1 of which was a woman (in 2010).
Synergy Awards for Innovation
Lastly, these prizes are for “examples of collaboration that stand as a model of effective partnership between industry and colleges or universities“, and began in 2009. Between 3-14 people have received this prize annually, and out of 33 recipients from 2009-2013, there have been 3 women, and none since 2010.
Of NSERC’s 185 “big award/prize” recipients from 2004-2013, only 31 (17%) were women.
And as you can see from the table, no women were recognized in any of these categories by NSERC in 2013. W.T.F.
I. like others, think the solutions to rectifying this ridiculousness must come from the scientific community, and from NSERC. Community members need to nominate more women, as the comments in Meg’s post point out. But in turn, the groups that receive the nominations should scrutinize the list of nominees and ask why there are fewer women, and what can be done to change that. When underrepresented groups see themselves in those selected for these awards, it increases the visibility of the group as a whole, gives others role models with whom they can identify, and neither of these should be discounted as not important for science.
Does the fact that no women have been awarded Canada’s top science prize, ever, mean there are no deserving women recipients for such a prestigious award? Heck no. It just means they’ve not been recognized because of systemic biases (whether those biases are recognized or not). I highly recommend you scroll through the “Women in Science” category at Dynamic Ecology, as Meg Duffy has written extensively on stereotype threat, and was to improve the current gender imbalance.
But whether it’s major scientific prizes, or your own local seminar series, make the effort to balance the recognition of men and women in science. It shouldn’t be hard to do given how many fantastic women scientists there are.
Wow, this is even worse than I expected. Do you have any contacts in the media? This seems like something that could blow up for NSERC really quickly.
NSERC Communications said:
Promoting women in science and engineering is a priority for NSERC and we have taken important steps to provide girls and women with opportunities in these fields.
We also recognize that it is important to foster an interest in science and engineering at an early age if we are to attract more young women into these careers. NSERC’s PromoScience grants provide funding to organizations working with young Canadians to promote interest and understanding in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Several grant recipients operate programs geared specifically to girls, and many more have created opportunities for young women to participate in research camps and workshops in their communities.
Mentorship is a key component for supporting and encouraging women in research at every stage of academic study. Our Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering are doing incredible work providing mentorship and inspiring the next generation of female scientists and engineers to pursue careers in research.
We recently co-sponsored, along with the National Science Foundation, an international Gender Summit in Washington, D.C. It brought together experts from research, industry and policy to develop ways of improving the quality and impact of research and innovation through increased participation from talented women. At this Summit, NSERC shared best practices and sought out opportunities to boost our own efforts by learning about effective models that are being implemented in other countries.
We are committed to identifying and eliminating barriers that may exist within our policies and programs and working together with other stakeholders, such as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, to do the same. For example, we have policies in place for researchers and students that allow them to take leave to start a family without sacrificing their careers or hindering their studies.
These initiatives are only a few examples of NSERC’s ongoing efforts to promote women in research in Canada.
We encourage the research community to help us recognize and celebrate talented female researchers by nominating more of their peers for NSERC prizes. We also ask that the community provide suggestions on how NSERC can strengthen the representation of Canada’s talented female researchers with our awards by emailing us at email@example.com.
Alex Bond said:
Thanks very much for the comment. No doubt the programs described are useful, and are to be applauded. But I would welcome your thoughts on how to improve the representation of women in the prestigious awards. Is the issue a lack of nominations? Only the nomination committees and NSERC itself would have access to those data. And if a lack of women nominees is the issue, this can be flagged for the future.
Similarly, what is the gender composition of those who evaluate the nominations? Presumably this is done by a committee for each award, and if there is an under-representation of women there, that could have knock-on effects.
I’m not looking to assign blame (either to the individuals or NSERC as an organization), but asking what can be done, both by NSERC and by the Canadian scientific community, to correct the current situation.
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NSERC Communications said:
Thanks for the feedback Alex. In addition to the initiatives listed in our earlier post, we’ve been looking specifically at how to boost the numbers of nominations of women scientists and engineers for our top prizes. We’ll continue to use our marketing and communications channels to build awareness of the nomination process and to encourage more individuals and groups to nominate women.
These actions, along with support from the research community, are important to help increase the number of women who win our top prizes. We also welcome additional feedback from the community on how to achieve this goal. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas.
Those numbers are pretty depressing (and revealing) as a woman in science. I will make a concerted effort to be more aware of my own biases when nominating and evaluating other scientists and would encourage all of my colleagues to do the same.
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