Two UBC professors resign from selection committee from Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame due to lack of female representation

Two Canadian scientists and UBC professors have resigned from the selection committee of the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame over disputes that, for the second time in as many years, there are no female nominees for induction. With these resignations, this leaves only one female board member, Jeanette Southwood, in the panel of five.

Out of the 60 people inducted into the Hall of Fame since 1991, only 11 have been women. According to the website for the Hall of Fame, one of its key aims is to “promote role models that will help attract young Canadians to careers in science, engineering and technology.”

UBC posted record numbers of women involved in these departments this year compared to other universities, with women making up 29 per cent of its 848-member first-year engineering students. This is a 61 per cent increase since 2010, but still reflects the disparity within the departments.

Neurology professor Judy Illes and Catherine Anderson, the two UBC professors who resigned from the committee, are both confident that there are several Canadian women scientists and engineers who reach the nomination and selection criteria.

“There are probably fewer women at the highest level who would qualify for this induction because there have been fewer women in the science and engineering pipeline,” said Illes, who resigned on April 3. “[The] trends are changing but it can’t change overnight, you don’t all of a sudden have equal numbers of distinguished women at the very highest level.”

However, she also stressed that, despite the disparagement of women in the science and engineering community, there are women at these highest levels.

“There are women at that level, and what the process has failed to achieve is capturing them,” said Iles.

Anderson, who resigned after Illes on April 9, commented upon the lack of diversity in organizations called upon for nominations.

“The lack of diversity stemming from the pool of nominations was coming from a small group of people,” she said. “My suggestion was that we should try to make sure that more groups and more diverse organizations knew about the call for nominations.”

The nomination process for the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame is straightforward -- open to the public and the academy, along with a 500-word essay and curriculum vitae submission. Illes cites a lack of awareness within the science and engineering community as a major reason for the deficiency in female nominations.

“I am involved with many organizations who had never heard of this. If the committee had done anything it still wasn’t efficient,” she said.

Joining the nominations committee in 2013, Illes had pressed for higher visibility within the female population.

“I visited the head of the program in the fall and we spoke about how the Hall of Fame could reach out more vigorously,” said Illes. “Whatever process [they] undertook, whether it was augmented or not, I did not observe any enhanced process over the previous year.”

This lack of progress from previous years is also Anderson’s reason for stepping down.

“It didn’t seem like change was happening,” she said. “It wasn’t necessarily just the lack of women, it was the fact that positive suggestions had been made, and people weren’t taking a positive approach.”

From this decision of stepping down, Anderson has resolved to attend conferences only if there is a diverse range of people invited as panelists and speakers.

“I won’t be attending conferences unless there’s a significant portion of invited speakers that are women,” she said. “I feel it’s important that I support things that show diversity, and in things that do not show diversity, I’m not participating.”

Illes has not written off the Science and Engineering Hall of Fame entirely, however.

“In the future I would love to become involved again once everyone regroups and puts in place a better process for reaching out,” she said.

She also hopes that weight will be placed solely on merit rather than prominence in the science and engineering community.

“It could be that we create a totally revised campaign and still have no women nominees, or no women nominees who make it to the final selection," said Illes. “That is, I suppose, possible because it should be merit that drives the question not gender. But I can’t imagine, knowing who’s out there now, that women would not be successful at least to the final selection process.”

Going forward, Illes wants more women to become aware of the Hall of Fame and take a more active role in the nominations and getting voices heard. The aim of the resignation was to protest against the ideas and visions which were not followed up from previous years, not to boycott the nominations or prestige.

“The bottom line message for today is that we have to move forward, we have to reopen the nomination, we have to have a vigorous immediate campaign to make a more heterogeneous slate and revise the campaign for the long term,” said Illes. “I really think the hall of fame has an opportunity now to provide leadership for women in science and engineering. Just take the bull by the horns now and just move forward.”