"Project Catalyst" is Active in Adding Women to Science


Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour

Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour Associate Dean of Science, Diversity from the University of Alberta

By Mitchell Zimmer

The Fourth Annual Gathering of Women in Science was an opportunity for faculty and graduate students to share views of the present and future challenges of life in scientific research from the perspective of women. A major issue is the recruitment of women into science academia. This is an issue which Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour is quite well acquainted. She is a founding member and past Vice-Chair of WISEST (Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology), a recipient of a Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case, appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada and is currently Associate Dean of Science (Diversity) at The University of Alberta.

Her talk began with a snapshot survey from the CAUT of the university student population across Canada showing that 58% of undergraduates are women. However, when the categories of what is being studied are considered, only 19% of undergraduate and graduate students who are enrolled in engineering and applied sciences are women. When it comes to women faculty in these fields, the statistics drop down to 11%. In mathematics and the physical sciences the figures are only marginally better; women make up 30% of the undergraduate and graduate students and 14% of the faculty. To make matters worse, the percentage of women who are faculty in science hasn’t changed since 1988. “Whenever I started saying I was concerned about the percentage of women faculty members, people would say, ‘Don’t worry, just give it time, there’s 50% women in undergraduate science, there’s 35% women in Ph.D. programs, just be patient,’” said Armour. “Well, see what being patient does? Nothing. …Now that I’m white haired I’m an awful lot less patient than I used to be and I’m not prepared to wait too much longer for this to change.”

“I’m a chemist and so naturally I decided what’s needed is a catalyst and Project Catalyst was born.” Armour says that she had two bookshelves weighed down with large reports from “many universities and they’re great. They’re all about what the problems are what we think are the reasons for the problems and recommendations.” Most of the time, the recommendations don’t get acted upon. As she sees it, the task is to distill the recommendations down to manageable steps.
Part of the problem is the context in which science has been taught. It is taught in a context which is not always relevant to any student in the class. Instructors should ask how to make the course and the subject more attractive to women. The changes can be as simple as taking off a tie, coming out front from behind the lab bench when teaching, checking to see if the illustrations used are relevant or incorporating essay type questions into assignments and exams.

In one pilot project, instructors who chose to adopt these or other strategies found that student evaluations improved. Armour says, “Now you’re thinking of students and what’s relevant to them. Usually the things that are relevant to women are relevant to everybody because they’re relevant to us as people.”

Another aspect of the problem is parenting responsibilities which discourage women from pursuing a science career. The situation is made even more difficult in the sciences where PhDs are expected to do a post-doctorate degree before taking on a faculty position. This career move has the benefit of making new faculty more independent and able to deal with the funding requirements. However, it does mean that it lengthens the time to launch a career. “It can take nine years to get tenure after a PhD at the same time the biological clock is ticking,” says Armour.

Systemic discrimination is another factor. “It’s something that we have to accept and that it is sometimes harder to see it because it is getting more implicit,” says Armour. “The Swedish Medical Research Council looked at those researchers who had been given fellowships over the past ten years. They found that the women who had received fellowships had to have on average 2.5 more papers in such journals as Science and Nature than the men. They were shocked since they believed that the process did not have that kind of bias.” There are other implicit biases as well which are very ingrained and hard to recognize.

Armour then added. “Western science is a remarkable intellectual achievement of the human mind and that we should celebrate it tremendously. We just need to try and make sure that everybody is included in that intellectual exercise and can have the same kind of excitement as most of us have had as we pursued doing science. That means to some extent that we have to change the culture of science.”

When it comes to issues of recruitment, retention and advancement, Armour showed that programs like Project Catalyst can encourage change. Armour noted that, too often, women do not apply for positions. She says that one of the first places to identify possible candidates is to seek women who are award winners within the department and invite women to give talks. Women should be part of the decision making process as well.

There are also subtleties to think of when advertising for positions. Most notices calling for an Assistant Professor say that the candidate should have an outstanding record of research. Armour said that most women tend to devalue their own work when, in fact, their level of research is equal to that of their male counterparts. Armour suggests to simply change the word “outstanding” to “excellent” to elicit more applications.

Once these women are hired, there should be efforts to facilitate mentorship on all levels to help establish collegiality and build a sisters network. Attention should also be paid to issues of work-life balance to ensure a healthier work environment. Academe can be more family friendly by adding day-care facilities.

At the end of her lecture, Armour launched the both new Women in Science website at and the revamped Work/Life Balance website at to close the Fourth Annual Gathering of Women in Science.