Dec. 4, 2019

Sexism in STEM linked to gender-based violence

Two women share their stories ahead of Dec. 6 memorial event at UCalgary

The deadliest mass shooting in Canadian history was fuelled by the shooter’s desire to “fight feminism” by specifically targeting women.

Tomorrow, the UCalgary community will come together to honour the lives of 14 women who were murdered on Dec. 6, 1989 at L’École Polytechnique in Montreal. This tragic event has become the basis of recognizing and supporting action against widespread violence committed against women in our society, and led the day to be designated the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.

Sexism vs violence

Where do extreme actions like this start? According to Carla Bertsch, UCalgary’s sexual violence support advocate, gender-based violence begins with sexism. “Narrow ideas about differences like gender and gender roles allow sexist attitudes and beliefs to go unexamined, which silently supports and maintains gender-based violence, often rendering sexist values invisible or inevitable,” says Bertsch. “But we all have choice and an ability to do the work to notice the ways sexism, in its smallest or most subtle forms, can be hidden in plain sight – from jokes about women, to a belief that women’s work is only in the home. If we want to prevent the escalation of violence, it starts by interrupting the smallest of sexist acts, behaviours, and ideas.”

Sexism in STEM

Especially in male-dominated fields like STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), sexism is still an issue facing many female-identifying students, faculty and staff. According to a 2018 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, in the United States, academics in STEM endure the highest rate of sexual harassment of any profession outside the military, and almost 50 per cent of all engineering students experience sexual harassment from faculty or staff.

For Qiao Sun, senior associate dean, diversity and equity in the Schulich School of Engineering, sexism has been part of her life since she began engineering school in China over 30 years ago. “Back then, there were only three women in our program out of 36,” she says. “We had no voice; we were part of the group, but we didn’t feel like we belonged. At the time, though, I wasn’t even aware of the problem – no one talked about it.”

Now, years later, in her role at UCalgary, Sun is aware that sexist norms and constructs remain ingrained in STEM. Women still face discrimination and feel pressure to work extra hard to prove themselves. “For me, I see and hear things, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, like small jokes and comments that have nothing to do with your work."

Typically, people think violence is about engaging in some physical harm, but we need to understand the idea of gender-based violence as anything that’s negative, based on your gender orientation.

Biomedical engineering PhD student Breanna Shalyn Borys has been in the STEM world for a long time. She’s studied at UCalgary for nine years, completing a chemical engineering undergrad before moving to her graduate degree. “I’ve had excellent experiences with most of my male professors and supervisors, but there is still a gap with some of them,” she says. “In undergrad, I had a prof that would always refer to me as the ‘cute, small girl’ in front of the class, and would call on me about things with the impression that if I could understand it then surely the rest of the class would. He was shocked when I was the only one in the class of over 200 students who got 100% on the mid-term.”

Flipping the script

In an effort to change the low national average of women in engineering (just 20 per cent) Borys often leads diversity in engineering recruitment and outreach events on and off campus. The main barrier she identifies for women in engineering is a sexist understanding of what engineering actually is. “The parts of engineering that might appeal to females more are not what is traditionally stereotyped in advertising.” Sun echoes this thought: “there is a tendency out there to blame women for not choosing engineering, but rather, we need to make the environment that welcomes women by raising awareness about the diverse range of things engineers actually do.

Sun also identifies cultural climate as a major factor in sexist behaviours. “There is so much potential for making a positive difference through our efforts, through our own career and by being role models to the next generation of engineers, both men and women. It’s about changing the culture so that everyone feels safe and respected.”

UCalgary’s Sexual Violence Policy aims to lead the institution in taking a stand against gender-based violence in all its forms. The sexual violence support team advocates for victim rights, accommodations and referrals, and can connect you to resources, counselling and reporting options. If you think you have experienced sexual violence, or know someone who has, visit the Sexual Violence Support website. You can also arrange a consultation with the university’s sexual violence support team by confidential email

Join UCalgary for a memorial event for the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women on Dec. 6, 12:15-12:45 with keynote speaker, Board of Governors Chair, Geeta Sankappanavar.