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Women of Distinction — I see you

The Hamilton Spectator by Joanna Wilson 24 November 2015

I never expected a standing ovation. Especially considering that my message was “I see you.” But when I won a YWCA Hamilton Women of Distinction Award for my contributions to Science and Technology last April, that is exactly what happened.

A national science news story was on my mind that day. Two female scientists had resigned from a selection committee for the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame. Dr. Judy Iles, a prominent neuroscientist from the University of British Columbia, resigned in protest over the lack of a single female nominee for the second year in a row. Days later, Dr. Catherine Anderson followed suit. They felt the process was flawed and failed to identify excellent and diverse candidates.

The reality is that in spite of our gains, women often go unacknowledged for their excellence. Yet women contribute enormously to their respective fields. In science, women were historically passed over for Canada Research Chair awards, a program with the key objective to build a critical mass of world-class researchers. The lack of female award holders was the focus of a gender discrimination suit with the Canadian Human Rights Commission in 2003.

Yet, in 2008 the new Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) program targeting high-calibre international researchers failed to nominate a single woman. Only one woman has won this award. The program’s administrators are studying how to improve this poor record. In 2014, they released guidelines for letters of recommendation because scientists don’t frequently use words like “excellent” or “outstanding” when they describe female scientists, even when they are leaders in their research areas.

When I was announced as a 2015 Woman of Distinction, I felt completely honoured. I spoke about the difficulty in gaining recognition as a woman in science, and the need for change. I said that the need for change stems from a basic need for fairness. If you do a great job, you should be recognized for it. I strongly believe the problem is not that there aren’t great women scientists, but that we fail to see them, to recognize them, to celebrate their achievements.

I told the amazing female students and colleagues at the awards banquet “I see you” and the room erupted. It is a powerful thing to be seen, to have your work, effort and talent recognized. It is something we must do. That is why awards that recognize those achievements, such as the Women of Distinction Awards, truly matter.

Some will say that women have come so far in gender equality that awards for them alone are no longer needed. But there is a continuing problem in recognizing women in male-dominated fields, and we don’t value as highly those fields dominated by women.

In April, I met an impressive group nominated for the Women of Distinction Awards: women who were impressive leaders in the arts, health, business, sciences and not-for-profit sectors.

I know there are more Hamilton women that should be recognized, acknowledged and “seen.” In 2016, the YWCA Hamilton Women of Distinction awards will be celebrating 40 years of celebrating and valuing the impact of women in OUR community.

I challenge you to see the remarkable achievements of women in your community and to nominate them for an award. Nominations are due Dec. 4 and details can be found at ywcahamilton.org.

Why is it important to recognize the achievements of women? To quote Justin Trudeau, “Because it’s 2015.”

Who will you nominate?

Joanna Wilson is an Associate Professor of Biology at McMaster University and the 2015 YWCA Woman of Distinction in Sciences, Technology, or Trades.