To mark International Womens Day, A&S women leaders offer advice to those following in their footsteps

March 8, 2022 by A&S News

In many disciplines in the physical sciences, social sciences and humanities, women have been historically excluded and, as a result, remain underrepresented. Even in 2022, they face hurdles, disadvantages and biases that their male counterparts do not.

To mark International Women’s Day — and in keeping with this year’s theme, #BreakTheBias — we asked Dean Melanie Woodin and a few other women leaders in the Faculty of Arts & Science this one question: What advice would you give to women pursuing a career in your discipline?

Anne-Marie Brousseau, Chair, Department of French

Don’t feel guilty! Don’t apologize! Repeatedly, research has shown that the challenge of work-life balance is the main obstacle for women’s career progress. Sadly, even after decades of sensibilization and positive initiatives, many women have internalized a bias that is prevalent in their work environment, if only covertly. They feel that they are not legitimate in devoting time and effort to family, from fertility treatments and childbearing to child-raising and caregiving to aging parents.

They feel disloyal to their university when they slow down professionally to take care of others. Some women will make their maternity leave as short as possible to minimize the impact on their unit and will apologize for taking it. Many women will postpone the timing of their first or second childbearing to meet the requirements of tenure or promotion. A lose-lose situation where guilt raises from the feeling of never doing enough. You are entitled to a family-life.

Marsha Chechik, Chair, Department of Computer Science

As a discipline, computer science has been dominated by men since the 1980s. Today, at the undergraduate and graduate level in computer science, women represent only 20 to30 per cent of the overall student population. Their concerns include not being taken seriously; hearing comments about their appearance; or dealing with expectations that they will marry and have children instead of pursuing graduate school.

But our society is so much stronger when its technology is developed by diverse teams. So, my advice to young women entering the field of computing is to work hard, aim to achieve technical proficiency, but also identify and foster areas of your own strength. Seek mentors and role models, not only among women, and reach out to them for help regularly. Be authentic and advocate for yourself, speaking up when you feel uncomfortable. Pay it forward: mentor, support and encourage younger women. And please, don’t give up!

Ana Teresa Pérez-Leroux, Chair, Department of Spanish & Portuguese 

When I was starting, I met awful people and brilliant mentors. One learns from both. Professional skills can be acquired; fears can be overcome. Nonequality often happens without actual malice or intent, because perceptions of potential and achievement are filtered by what people already think and what they know. But only you can define yourself.

The advice I wished someone would have given me is: To try to understand how the field works, but not be afraid of imagining your place in it. As a young woman, I feared asking “too much,” thinking I was to start modestly and work my way up. I imagined then that gender disparities were things of the past, relevant to older women, not me. My women students are equally misled today. But each generation shall renew both discontent and promise. 

Jill Ross, Director, Centre for Comparative Literature

Like many fields of the humanities, comparative literature is welcoming to women and to all kinds of gendered identities. As an academic field, comparative literature is concerned with the many ways that literatures and other forms of creative expression move across languages, geographies, cultures and disciplines.

This emphasis on the possibilities of the ‘trans’ — ‘across’ in Latin — as a site of exploration makes comparative literature particularly hospitable for taking up topics of gender and sexuality, topics that are central to the research of many students and faculty at the Centre for Comparative Literature. Any advice I might direct to women, or anyone else, entering this field today, would be to advocate strongly for the continuing vitality of the humanities at all levels of education, for it is in the humanities where one finds the language and practice of critique so crucial to sustaining the vitality of our culture and society.

Lisa Strug, Director, CANSSI at U of T

This is an exciting time to be entering the field of data science. Digital resources are exploding in almost every discipline and with the tools of data science you can have an impact in almost any field you’re passionate about. To prepare yourself for a career in data science, focus on a strong foundation in math and computing, persevere through the challenging content, develop your skills in data management and start thinking like a data detective.

Sali A. Tagliamonte, Chair, Department of Linguistics

Remember that it is such a privilege to be able to do the things you love to do. To this day, I look forward to opening my computer and working on an analysis or an argument — and it’s especially fun to come to an understanding of something I am trying to figure out. The harder thing is to keep plugging away when you don’t understand what is going on and when you think that all your ideas are crap. When that happens, remember to stay curious, knowing the answer will come if you keep trying. More generally, know that it is okay to speak your mind, but it is also okay to observe and be silent. Be brave and intrepid; prepare to step outside your comfort zone; remember to praise your students and recognize the people who help you along the way.

Pamela Klassen, Chair, Department for the Study of Religion

My advice to younger women colleagues and students might apply to those in the study of religion and beyond. Here goes: Seek out mentors within your field and outside of it — and know that most senior scholars really want to help successive generations to thrive. Never be shy to email someone to share your interest in their research or to send a second email if you don’t hear back, as inboxes get crowded. Try to find at least one hour a day to write, so you remember why you love what you do. Take care of your relationships with friends and family, as they will see you through when things get tough. If you want to have children, there is no “best time” to do so, but there are many good times. When negotiating a job offer, get advice on what salary you should ask for, and aim high. The need to strike a balance between the solitude needed to get your work done, and the conversation and collaboration required to learn, think and contribute to your academic community is perpetual.

Melanie Woodin, Dean, Faculty of Arts & Science

Neuroscience is a field full of complex mysteries waiting to be solved. Inquisitive women entering the field today are poised to make discoveries that will forever change our understanding about how the brain works and who we are. But cracking a scientific mystery is often a circuitous and lengthy process, with no certain outcome. My advice is to follow your passion, stay curious, and believe in yourself. There will be days when you second-guess whether you should stay on this scientific path, and these are the days to reflect on our passion and remember you’re playing the long game.