Ask Women Anything: STEM panel discussion

 

Another successful AWA with Media Action! And what an evening it was, with a killer STEM panel and an engaged audience of all ages. Our four guests, Dr. Sue Twine (NRC), Dr. Winnie Ye (Carleton Univ), Vicki Iverson (CTO Iversoft) and Dr. Katey Rayner (U Ottawa Heart Institute) shared wisdom on their career paths and the excitements and challenges they faced along the way.

Dr. Sue Twine discussed the way in which development in the world of science can be very focused on the self, one’s own achievements and career goals. While a competitive atmosphere can foster this attitude, she said that one of the greatest joys of her career has been sharing her achievements with others and witnessing her colleagues’ successes. In her work at the National Research Council, the goal is to develop and make accessible drugs for those who need them. Sharing this goal, and working and succeeding as a team creates a truly rewarding atmosphere, she said. Dr. Twine finds it encouraging to see students whom she mentored making strides in science; some now have faculty positions across the world. She urges other women to surge forward — to take a career path that may be non-linear, or not entirely planned out, but that will lead to a rewarding life in their field.

 


Dr. Winnie Ye acknowledged that she has never been able to strike a work-life balance, but didn’t frame this as a downfall. She shared that she had recently been congratulated on being a successful “mid-career” person, which prompted the realization that she was, in fact, mid-career. In her junior career she had never been able to pause, it was expected that constant work be the focus. But she loved the work and the pace. Now, being mid-career, the hard work has some payoffs, and she can take some moments to herself. But Dr. Ye reminds us that she hasn’t worked hard so she can take time off – she built her career because she loves what she does, so she has built her life around it.  She said, “I choose this life.”

In the same vein, Vicki Iverson shared her experience building a company from the ground up. She put in the very long hours for eight years and she has seen her company take on new life. She has gathered a capable team whom she knows can take care of business should she need to step away. She has children, but “when you run your own company, there’s no mat leave,” so she remains consistently involved in her business. She values the respect she feels in her workplace and the moments she spends problem solving with her team.

Dr. Katey Rayner explained that because her work is building a research program, she consistently has to hire and train interns, and ensure her team can “woman the ship”. She called attention to the inconsistency between men and women being asked when they would “run off and have babies.” She asked, “Why can’t this be my life, and my family for now?” Dr. Rayner encourages all women to be confident that things will work out, that if they don’t like what they’re doing, they have the freedom to change paths.

 


When asked about the challenges of working in a male-dominated field, each woman expressed in her own way that they had not felt overwhelming marginalization as a woman in science, although they know the field is biased based on sheer numbers and anecdotal experiences. Dr. Ye, when asked about female competitors in the field, responded: “I look forward to competition!” — she has been the only woman faculty member in electrical engineering at Carleton since 2009.

Our panelists did some myth-breaking around the “leaky pipeline” theory, which suggests women are leaving the field to raise children. They pointed instead to a hard bias in the field, which excludes women from conferences and opportunities to share their science, and creates the impression that their work is not influential in the field. Ms. Iverson said that when she is invited to speak at panels, she no longer wonders if it’s because she fills some kind of affirmative action quota. She says that she takes every opportunity to demonstrate her success in her field. All panelists agreed that visibility and representation go a long way to fostering successful women in STEM.

Media Action would like to thank all of our panelists for joining us, and Bar Robo for hosting in such an inviting space.