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CWSE strategy for the new millenium

Adapted from address to CCWEST Conference
Vancouver BC, May 22, 1998


There are many groups working on women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) issues throughout the Atlantic Region, and all across the country. Many of these groups are members of the umbrella organization CCWEST, the Canadian Coalition for Women in Engineering, Science, and Technology. The CCWEST conference in Vancouver in May, 1998 was an opportunity to reflect on the increase in participation of women in science and engineering since the first CCWEST conference in 1983, and to consider where we are going as we head into the new millenium.


Well, where exactly are we? Thanks to the CCWEST conference and recent 'update' reports, we have the current status of our 'campaign' - the activities as well as the results to date. In brief, the main walls are down and the major dragons are gone. Every university, company and association will say that women are welcome, and most teachers will say that girls can do math. But the data show that women are still underrepresented in many areas, and our collection of personal experiences and anecdotal evidence indicates a continuing frustration with career success, a never-ending task to get girls interested in science, and a widespread public perception that engineering is for men. The answer to that oft-heard question is "No, we are not there yet."

The question you are expecting is "Where are we going?" In some ways, it is easier to know what to do when there are big walls and dragons. Our current situation is that everywhere you look there is work to be done in education, support, counseling, awareness. So perhaps the real question is "ARE WE GOING SOMEWHERE?" Do we have momentum, growing improvement all across the country? If not, there is a chance that at the next CCWEST conference in St. John's in 2000, the situation will be incrementally but not substantially different. The question is, then, "What can any of us do that will make a difference?"

The purpose of this discussion paper is to get people thinking about where we are going - both the big (the national) picture and the personal one. It presents a framework for an updated national strategy, reflecting the development of the strategy for the Atlantic Region. From a national strategy can flow plans and projects for each group and region. But programs by themselves are not enough, the issues are complex, and five chairs are not going to change society. The changes will come because the community, the women who enjoy Science and Engineering, and who want other women to have the opportunity to share that enjoyment, give collective and coherent leadership to women and men, scientists and not. The most important application of the national strategy is to empower each one of us to move, to lead, to change things. 


Our strategy must be national to be effective. To demonstrate, here is a case study, part of the communication plan we developing for the Atlantic Chair. The three objectives for the Chair are: stimulate interest, promote choice, and support retention. There are three corresponding audiences: grade 5 - 8, grade 9 - 12, and post-secondary.

Figure 1 shows an Influence Map with each of the three audiences marked in blue. The sources of influence are marked in green, and the influence paths are traced in red. When you start to think about this, you may want to add sources and paths. Contributions acknowledged, but it gets messy quickly, and more information will not change the main connections. Young women generally are strongly influenced by their peers, fellow students and co-workers. The peer groups are influenced by authority agents (teachers and employers), and to a large extent by an amorphous, pervasive public attitude, in turn an expression of the culture in which we live. Public attitude, influences, and is influenced by, the other influence sources. The public media are an important source, but also responsive, radiating and absorbing influence.

Consider these questions:

  1. How do we inject the attitudes we wish to promote into the influence map?
  2. Where are we on the influence map?
  3. How do other organizations address the influence map?
To inject our attitudes, we must be on the map. But each of our groups is a barely visible spec on it. And the scale of the key influence sources is huge -> national or even international in scope. To change public attitudes about roles and lifestyles, you must have an advertising budget the size of Nike's, or be a famous public figure (these models effectively install another source on the map), or be part of a network of dynamic women with a coherent large-scale strategy.

An umbrella organization like CCWEST, with its affiliates, has the qualities necessary to deliver influence under this third model: extensive, pervasive, and cooperative. The CCWEST member members are spread coast to coast (extensive), they are connected to many of the influence sources (pervasive), and they can work together with a common strategy (cooperative). The requirement of a significant source on the influence map is, in a nutshell, the argument for a common national strategy.


A national strategy has to be developed by the national organization - it does not come from one person or group. This paper presents the thinking behind the strategy for the Atlantic Region Chair, and offers it as a reference point for the development of a national strategy. It starts with the usual ingredients.

Mission: to support the increased participation of women at all levels in Science and Engineering, with a focus on Atlantic Canada.

Objectives: stimulate interest, promote choice, and support retention.

Vision: a participation rate greater than or equal to 33%.

The 33% figure appears in various references, but the rationale I used was probabilistic: The minimum requirement is that whenever discussions are held or decisions are made, that women's views are at the table. If 33% of any group are women, then whenever two or more of that group work together, there is a better than even chance that at least one of them will be a woman. And that is enough to change the way we work. {Actually 29.3% would do for large groups. The extra 3.7% is to allow for approximations in smaller groups, and maternity leave.}

Now perhaps 60% of the first year Biology students are women, and 20% of the first year Engineering students are women - on average we are almost there. But wait a minute: 5% of Engineering faculty are women; 8% of technical managerial positions in a certain sector are women; and how many Ministers of Industry, Science & Technology have been women? The logic behind the Vision requires that we have greater than or equal to 33% where the decisions are made. The Vision is actually:

Vision: Greater than or equal to 33% EVERYWHERE


Once we have the Vision, the strategies are the answer to the question. "How do we get there?" How does anything get anywhere? (Think of the Mars lander.) Getting there requires a guidance system, a propulsion system, and a way to deal with roadblocks.

The Guidance System - Leadership

We expend considerable energy studying and documenting the things that are wrong. When we talk about things that are wrong, we lose the attention of half of the women and most of the men. It is necessary to know what is wrong in order to fix it - necessary but not sufficient. It is also necessary to know what is right. Many supportive men and women are saying, "Yes, but what should I do?" If we do not answer that question, then we lose their potential for change. Leadership is positive action.

Because we are working to change attitudes, and also because we are women, the leadership is inclusive. It is not generals all alone in the command centre, but team leadership, as expressed in, 'This is where we need to go. Will you be on this team?'

Where does the leadership come from? It has to be widespread - recall the 'pervasive' quality of the influence model. The leadership comes from each one of us. You may think, "I do not know what to do." As a matter of fact, you do. In your own situations, you know what is right, you know that you have the support of the rest of us, and you know that the time to act is now. The key to this strategy is that women are not passively waiting for someone else to decide how to get there - each one of us is taking on the task of finding the way.

Summary: Women are leaders.

The Propulsion System - Motivation

We can learn something from hockey. For years, a few little girls have petitioned and struggled for the opportunity to play on hockey teams. There were only a few of them, they received very little encouragement, there was no prospect for advancement, and most of them dropped out. (Does this sound familiar?) Somehow, a few of them made it to the winter Olympics in Nagano. What they did there was really exciting, and heavily covered in the public media. Now little girls are pouring over the boards in hockey arenas all over North America - you can't stop them. And some of the coaches and parents who were invisible before are now supporting the new teams and new leagues.

The scientific equivalent of an olympic team is an astronaut (rocket science is a little dated). I would like to have a whole team of Julie Payettes in the news every day. Most of us are not in the astronaut league, but at whatever level we play, we can share our excitement for our work. We may say that science and engineering provide challenge, satisfaction, income, and a feeling of self-worth, but what motivates us to explore, to use our minds, and to work hard is the excitement of science and engineering itself.

Summary: Science and engineering are exciting.

Roadblock Removal

I referred in the beginning to the shadowy targets - the continuing sense of frustration in careers, the feeling that we are always pushing uphill trying to get girls interested in science. The roadblocks we are dealing with are not explicit in policy or statement, but rather they are deep and systemic factors in institutions where we work, the fundamental assumptions, the habits, and the traditions. I am thinking of an unnamed university department which said it would hire a woman if it could. The last time they had an opening, no qualified women applied. Did any women apply? One. She had a PhD, and had been doing research in a new interdisciplinary area - "you know, not REAL (discipline), so not suitable". Well her research sounded exciting and relevant to me, but the lads clearly wanted something more traditional. We have to change the traditions.

There is a restriction that must go with this strategy: the change must be for the overall benefit of the community involved. So we are not considering short-sighted change (as in, 'I want that job'), or a lowering of standards as the price of diversity. There are many reasons for critical examination of the traditions and assumptions of our institutions: relevance of traditional curricula to modern research, technology and the new economy; higher standards of pedagogy, ethics and professionalism; mobile careers, families, and society. However I offer an observation here - the subject for another whole talk - that often when an institution is in need of change in order that it can better meet the needs of science and society, those same changes would make it a better place for women to succeed.

Summary: Change the traditions.


This paper began with a proposal for a national strategy; it ends with a suggestion for how a national strategy can be enacted. 

The activities which address three key strategies for each of the three identified audiences will be different, and will vary with region, group, and resources. The matrix of three strategies by three audiences makes up the framework of a plan for each organization. A common framework across the country - same audiences, same strategies - would have the effect of unifying the local activities into a national program. 


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