The History of SCWIST

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The Undaunted Six

The Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST) was incorporated as a society on July 30, 1981.

Mary Vickers, the founding president, remembers how the group “increased mightily” in its first year: “We presented eight public programs and started the first Registry of Women in Science in BC and Yukon. Our programs received positive responses that convinced us of the need for an organization like SCWIST. For example, we had a packed room when we held a panel discussion on the question, ‘Can a talented female scientist from a small town in the West find happiness and a permanent job in a scientific establishment?’’’ 

“It is appropriate and proper for women to have equal access to careers in science and technology.”

Mary Vickers

Mary Vickers, a biology instructor at Douglas College in New Westminster at the time, credits Maggie Benston with the success of the 1983 National Conference on Women in Science. 

“SCWIST members organized the first conference ever held in Canada for women in science, but it was Maggie who stimulated us. She was the ‘brains’ behind it.” Due to Maggie’s reputation, feminist scientists, including her twin sister, came as guest speakers from the United States and Europe, with over 300 participants attending. 

Following the successful SCWIST conference and the wide response to the Proceedings of the first National Conference for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, May 20-22, 1983, Vancouver, B.C., the Society was more certain than ever that it could help young girls and women increase their career choices through math and sciences. The belief was confirmed by the Girls in Science summer workshops, begun in 1984, which were enthusiastically received by the girls, parents, and B.C. elementary school teachers. At the same time, SCWIST members were being invited to serve on the federal government’s Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women. Clearly, SCWIST’s efforts were being recognized. 

Betty Dwyer, president from 1983 to 1984, lamented the ongoing numeric disparity of women scientists in academic posts. In 1983, when only two of 42 Canadian PhDs in mathematics were women, Betty said, “No wonder the universities find it hard to apply ‘affirmative action’. There is nothing out there to affirm! Please, you Masters’ students, go on to the next step. They’re waiting for you!” Betty noted that this scarcity of women applicants continued to be a problem during her tenure at Simon Fraser University, where she taught biometry and statistics until her retirement in the early 90s. There was still a wide imbalance between female and male graduates. “And there were just 42 female applicants for 50 science positions offered by the university in 1991,” she said. An honourary member, Betty exemplified the Society’s ongoing determination to succeed in carrying out its mandate. She established her own fundraising project: the sale of young tomato plants. “She grows special varieties of tomato, and being a bit of a pessimist, she always plants more than actually needed,” said SCWIST president Dr. Penny LeCouteur (1990 – 1992). “They all come up, and because she cannot bear to throw out good plants, she sells them, and donates the money to the scholarship fund.” In 1985, tomato sales brought $24 toward stamps; in 1991, her project generated over $100 toward the SCWIST Maggie Benston Scholarship Fund. 

Dr. Maggie Benston was a founding member of SCWIST and a stalwart supporter of female scientists because of her background as a rare woman in the field of theoretical chemistry and computer science. At Simon Fraser University, she moved from a chemistry-teaching career to establishing the Women’s Studies Program but also held a computing science teaching appointment. Following Maggie’s death in early 1991, the executive named her the Society’s first honourary member, and renamed the SCWIST B.C. Institute of Technology scholarship in her honour. A Graduate Bursary in Women’s Studies was also established at SFU in her name. 

“It was from Maggie’s quiet encouragement and professional experiences that young women have had the opportunity to further their post-secondary studies,” said Dr. Hilda Ching, SCWIST president (1984 –1986). Hilda received a 1991 YWCA Women of Distinction Award and was the 1990-91 appointee to the Ruth Wynn Woodward endowed chair of Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University.  Hilda recognizes and values the strong commitment of the society’s membership. 

“Since 1981, there has been a strong network built from sharing work on the projects, within the executives, and through contacts from our social program. A special rapport develops with those who attend our meetings over food, drinks, and a hospitable atmosphere. Our network keeps contact with provincial and federal government groups, representing interests in labour, employment, history, education, and women’s issues,”

Dr. Hilda Ching

SCWIST president Marian Adair (1986-1987), a biologist, and past vice president of Norecol Environmental Consultants, also highlighted the Society’s openness and friendliness. At that time in its history, midway in its first decade, SCWIST membership had swelled to 150 women with a variety of careers, interests, and backgrounds. As the achievements of the organization received greater recognition, financial support from the larger community began to arrive to supplement the financial and professional contributions from the women scientists and members. By that point, over $180,000 in project and program funding had been received from supporters. 

Moving forward on the momentum established by her predecessors, Dr. Diana Herbst, who was laboratory manager at B.C.’s Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, presided over a co-sponsored SCWIST/University Women’s Club reception for renowned astronaut Dr. Roberta Bondar in the fall of 1987. In the same month, the first Women Do Math career conference was held, and at the start of the new year, SCWIST presented its first elementary science workshops for B.C. teachers. 

Diana’s advice in the late 1980s was: “Acquire the math and technical skills that you’ll need to begin your science career. Then consider management.”

Dr. Diana Herbst

Dr. Josefina (Josie) Gonzalez, a research scientist specializing in wood characteristics at Forintek in Vancouver, held the president’s chair from 1988 to 1989. During her term, a brief to the Royal Commission on Education and Part-time Employment, emphasizing girls and science education in British Columbia, was presented. In addition, the Secretary of State Women’s Programs funded both the Women Do Math conference, and the Visiting Scientists Project, where women scientists and tradeswomen met with grades 6 and 7 students and teachers to discuss the girls’ career choices. The program, which ran for two years, originally started out as a program with the Career Action Youth Centre and the Vancouver School Board. The idea of Visiting Scientists was adopted later by the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education runs to this day and is known as the Scientists and Innovators in Schools program, administered by Science World. The Elementary Science Teachers Workshops, which also began in 1987, was an evening series held over seven weeks of presentations by outstanding teachers demonstrating hands-on activities to encourage excellence in science teaching. This project also ran for two years with enthusiastic support from the teachers in the Lower Mainland. The idea of teaching the teachers continued under the aegis of Science World as its “Loon Lake Program”.

As Josie Gonzalez was completing her presidency, an invitation came for her to sit on the Prime Minister’s Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. Incoming SCWIST president Tasoula Berggren began directing her attention to expanding the Women Do Math conference. Tasoula, a Fulbright Scholar, taught mathematics and was the coordinator of the calculus and linear algebra workshop at Simon Fraser University.  Tasoula created the Women Do Math conferences in 1987 at SFU and then directed them for four years in the Lower Mainland and in five communities in B.C. and the Yukon. During Tasoula’s term, Imagine the Possibilities, science workshop activities for 9 to 12-year-olds, went into its second printing, and the video, What Do Scientists Do? was produced by Hilda Ching. 

By the time SCWIST neared the end of its first decade, changing demographic patterns suggested that college-age males would decline by 25 percent during the 1990s. This implied that the traditional pool of physics/math graduates would probably decrease at a time when there could be an increased requirement for professionals in these fields. Women, therefore, could be considered an untapped resource, which gave some organizations an opportunity to persuade women to turn to careers in science and math. One study showed that the achievement gap in math between girls and boys had closed considerably in the 1980s. The girls had increased their achievement scores in standard tests, and there were no longer any differences, in part, because of individual women’s dedication to equality. 

“There were women who coached, recruited, and established networks. They convinced most of us in business, education, and government that it is appropriate and proper for women to have equal access to careers in science and technology,”

Mary Vickers

SCWIST’s next president, Penny LeCouteur (1990-1992), a chemistry professor, and Head of the Natural Sciences Department at Capilano College, is one of those dedicated women referred to by Mary. She was the first woman to receive the POLYSAR award for excellence in teaching at a Canadian Community/Technical College. Penny and her SCWIST colleagues were understandably pleased with the achievements and contributions their Society had made. Penny retired as Dean of Arts and Science at Capilano College, now Capilano University. 

By the early 1990s, the Visiting Scientists program was administered by Science World, and the Girls in Science workshops were organized by regional communities rather than by SCWIST. The MS Infinity conferences and workshops for grades 9 and 10 girls were held annually and also became community-based. Over 1,000 girls, parents, and teachers attended the first of an annual series of conferences, which was held in 1990. “They were all a rousing success!” said Penny. Also during 1992 – 1993, the Registry of Women in Science, Engineering and Technology underwent a technological update, the new Quantum Leaps and Female Friendly Science projects were held, a journal was planned, and the SCWIST Resource Centre opened. 

Undeniably, SCWIST had stepped firmly off the porch, not only into a new decade, but also into a growing reputation for education and advocacy in promoting women in Science, Engineering and Technology. 

1993 was an extraordinary year in SCWIST’s history. Dr. Michael Smith, a professor at UBC, shared the Nobel Prize with Dr. Kary Mullis, for site-directed mutagenesis. Dr. Michael Smith had long been aware of the difficulties faced by women in science. Through his friendship with Mary Vickers (1981-1983), Dr. Smith decided to create a funding foundation for SCWIST. He took the financial component of his Nobel Prize, asked the Provincial Government to match it, then asked the Federal Government to match the total. The 4X Nobel Prize created the base endowments at the Vancouver Foundation for each of SCWIST, Science World BC and the BC Schizophrenia Society. The endowment supports SCWIST to this day. Dr. Smith remained a friend, advocate, and participant in SCWIST, and Mary Vickers was his guest at the Canadian celebrations in ceremonies in Ottawa. “I was SCWIST treasurer then,” says Maria Issa (1995-1996), “and I can remember going with SCWIST President Jackie Gill, and Past President Hilda Ching, to breathlessly walk the actual cheque down to the Vancouver Foundation.” 

Dr. Maria Issa was president from 1995-1996 and remembers establishing SCWIST’s XX Evening at Science World, (later rebranded as the Wonder Women Networking Evening) and Opening the Doors run by Science World. For the first few years, Dr. Michael Smith attended XX Evening as the only ‘XY’ present. These two similar programs connected college-age and grade 12 students, respectively, with women professionals working in scientific fields, with a view to creating professional networks. During this time, SCWIST also received ongoing government support for ms infinity. Maria also singles out the honour of “meeting probably the best women in the fields of science in the province and making amazing friends for life.” She also said, “Having UBC students walk up to me saying “do you remember doing a ms infinity presentation in my BC town? I listened – now I’m in science!”: those are the moments worth living for.”

Hiromi Matsui was the Director of Diversity & Recruitment at Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Applied Sciences and took on the role of SCWIST President from 1997-1998. Two highlights of her presidential term include producing the CD ROM, Xplore Science Careers and the report “Where are the Women?” Regarding the CD, Hiromi says, “Michelle Thong was an amazing high school student who started the work on it (she ended up doing a double major in engineering and women’s studies in the US), and Mary Watt put it all together for us. Mary always said we should have done a follow-up to it. Would have been interesting since some of those women now have families and successful careers.” One of the women featured on the CD was Catherine Roome, who became Chief Operating Officer of the BC Safety Authority. She worked at a senior level at BC Hydro for many years. The second project was something SCWIST president Judy Myers (2000-2002) and Hiromi worked on together with a committee and hired a consultant, Raeanne Steele, to do a report on “Where are the Women? A Benchmark study of Women in Information Technology in BC.” They worked with the Science Council of BC and a public policy consulting firm to create a comprehensive report that was shared broadly.  SCWIST also set up a Premier’s Award for Young Women in Engineering that was funded by Motorola for a few years. 

30 Years of SCWIST

In 2011, SCWIST celebrated 30 years of expanding horizons. Please view the video below to learn more about the accomplishments we have made over the past three decades.

40 Years of SCWIST

In 2021, SCWIST celebrated four decades of unwavering commitment to advancing women and girls in STEM fields. Throughout this remarkable journey, SCWIST has continuously evolved, adapting to the changing times and steadfastly supporting women in STEM, even in the face of challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since its conception in 1981, SCWIST has endured and flourished under the guidance of visionary leaders and dedicated volunteers. This anniversary, commemorated by the slogan “40 Years of STEM Impact,” was an occasion to reflect on the organization’s lasting influence.

To celebrate its legacy of driving change in STEM, SCWIST orchestrated a series of commemorative events and launched several innovative programs and initiatives. While it is impossible to mention them all, a few key highlights warrant special recognition.

  • One of the standout achievements was the transformative shift of SCWIST’s youth-focused programming, ms infinity, to a fully virtual platform during the pandemic. This move encompassed Quantum Leaps conferences, e-mentoring, STEM Explore workshops and outreach to Indigenous communities. By embracing the digital landscape, SCWIST reached unprecedented numbers of students across Canada with interactive STEM experiences.
  • Throughout the year, SCWIST held a remarkable total of 95 events, which included in-person summer walks, virtual weekly brown bags, capacity-building workshops, professional development sessions, and fireside socials, all of which nurtured a sense of community and facilitated valuable networking opportunities.
  • To expand its influence and reach beyond British Columbia, SCWIST successfully established Regional Hubs in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, and Alberta. These Hubs became instrumental in hosting local events and activities, multiplying the impact of SCWIST across the nation.
  • The SCWIST  Business Development team conducted an analysis of the SCWIST Job Board, resulting in improvements to enhance engagement, value, and feedback from stakeholders. The job board creates more opportunities for aspiring STEM professionals to connect with potential employers.
  • Another noteworthy accomplishment was the 2021 Women in STEM Virtual Career Fair, during which 298 virtual attendees engaged with 16 exhibitors from diverse STEM industries and non-profit sectors. Alongside this, attendees were also able to participate in career coaching, resume advising, and skill development workshops. This STEM Virtual Career Fair has become a SCWIST signature event that now attracts over 500 annual participants from across Canada.
  • In line with its commitment to gender parity and inclusivity in STEM workplaces, the SCWIST Policy and Impact Committee joined forces with the Government of Canada and 1600 other organizations to participate in the 50-30 Challenge. The goal is to achieve a 50% gender balance and increase the representation of underrepresented groups by 30% in STEM fields. Additionally, SCWIST launched the Advocacy Toolkit and STEM Diversity Champions Toolkit to equip stakeholders with valuable resources in advancing equity, diversity, and inclusion.
  • SCWIST also played an integral role in Canada’s $100 million Feminist Response Recovery Fund by launching its STEM Forward for Economic Prosperity project. This project supports employers by implementing equitable hiring practices and advocating for pay equity, flexible work arrangements, parental leave and inclusive workplace cultures.
  • A partnership with WomanACT led to the creation of the Supporting Safe STEM Workplaces project, which collaborates with STEM companies to develop comprehensive policies, establish trauma-informed reporting mechanisms and create avenues for resolution and referral pathways.

Much of SCWIST’s programming and advocacy work was supported by the SCALE project, generously funded by Women and Gender Equality Canada. The project focused on building organizational capacity, fostering collaborative partnerships and championing advocacy efforts.

Towards the end of the 40th anniversary year, SCWIST received promising news of funding support for their STEM Streams project. This pilot program provides free, accessible training opportunities for women from underrepresented groups in STEM, empowering them with essential skills and confidence to pursue thriving careers in these fields.

After SCWIST’s 40th Anniversary celebrations, the organization remains resolute in its commitment to empower, inspire and connect with more women and girls in STEM fields. The quest for gender equity in Canada’s STEM landscape is far from over, and SCWIST eagerly anticipates the next 40 years of progress, fostering a brighter future for women in the sciences.

The achievements and accomplishments of SCWIST’s 40-year journey would not have been possible without the collective efforts and dedication of countless individuals. Gratitude is extended to the Board of Directors, volunteers, contractors, members, funders, donors, and the entire community of women in STEM who serve as role models, igniting the path to a more equitable future.

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