SCWIST: Expanding Horizons since 1981, reflections on our 30th year anniversary (2014)

L-R: Ms. Fariba Pacheleh, Director of Strategic Development, Society for
Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST); Maria Issa, Past President of
SCWIST; MP Weston; Minister Leitch; MP Wai Young; Hilda Ching, Past President of
SCWIST; Hiromi Matsui, Past President SCWIST; Ms. Rosine Hage-Moussa, President of
SCWIST

0:11 (Mary Vickers) There was a definite feeling that women really didn’t belong in the academic workplace, much less in the scientific workplace

0:22 (Dr. Abby Schwarz) Women were not paid anywhere near the same as men. They didn’t have the same advancement opportunities. And that was a very big issue for me, because it was as though, for me looking for full time work, it was like somebody running a race with a lead weight on one leg, you know, it just wasn’t fair. So, a lot of us felt the same way, believe me, and then there was the issue of trying to juggle a home, children and science.

0:51 (Tasoula Berggeren): We were such few women involved in science those days.

0:56 (Abby Schwarz): A friend of mine was Maggie Benston and she and I would meet periodically at Joe’s café on commercial drive to talk about the injustices in the world and one of them was the treatment of women, who were looking for work in science, who had qualifications every bit as good as those of a man. And she and I would meet on commercial drive and have coffee and talk, and the idea was born to get together, a collective — an organization for women in science and we got a number of other women involved, the original 6 of us.

1: 31 (Dr. Diana Herbst): Once we got together and started talking, we realized that we really wanted support women not just in science and academia, which AWIS was really focusing on, but we wanted that a little bit broader — women not only in science but also in the technologies as well, and felt that a Canadian organization would be more effective, rather than one which was focusing mainly in the US.

2:08 (Mary Vickers) We decided to call ourselves the society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology. There were how many of us, there were five of us on that initial meeting, and we all had roles, and all the other ones got taken, so I was the president. It was a really exciting time.

2:23 (Dr. Hilda Ching): We were very good in getting formally organized as a non profit group and then organizing the conference, registry and a number of these projects over 30 years.

2:37 (Dr. Diana Herbst): I’m one of the six founding members of SCWIST. I was involved in getting information on how to register as a society, and filling out the application that was then submitted under the Society’s Act.

2:53 (Dr. Abby Schwarz) It was very exciting for me personally to realize that this was an organization that was going to keep going. I mean it’s one thing to talk, it’s something else to do things.

3:03 (Dr. Maria Gyongossy-Issa) We were a team, we did everything. You know those eastern, beautiful eastern gods who have many arms? When you see the person in the front, but all the other arms were doing the work, and then it was all the other arms, it was everybody doing this stuff.

3:19 (Dr. Abby Schwarz) I think what I’m most proud of, I get teary, is that we kept going. And really, that’s it, it was it’s called persistence. And I’m not terribly good at administration. I’m a scientist who unfortunately is better at, you know some of those aspects than others. But I helped wherever I was able and that was a lot. And all the women involved were just determined to make it better, both for themselves and their kids. Sorry. And one of the nicest things that happened was men started saying well yes, you do deserve more, and we got some super support from men.

4:25 (Dr. Maria Gyongossy-Issa) We realized that we needed to network

4:28 (Dr. Abby Schwarz) And one of the things we started, and another founder — Mary Jo Duncan who isn’t here — she lives in Ireland now — was in charge of the registry. And the registry was meant to find women in science.

4:40 (Hiromi Matsui): There was an incredible opportunity to meet and become friends with a wide variety of women in science and engineering, whom I would have never had the chance to work with, otherwise.

4:54 (Dr. Penny Lecouteur) I sometimes say that if it hadn’t been for SCWIST, the women that I would’ve known in science would have just been chemists, but because of SCWIST, I knew biologists and physicists and other chemists, and geologists and engineers and mathematicians and statisticians and neurobiologists and the whole the whole works. You know I had a, I still have a wide range of friends in the science community who were women.

1983 First national conference for Women in Science and Technology

5:37 (Dr. Abby Schwarz) I think one of the biggest obstacles we had to get through was convincing other women and men that we could infact do it.

5: 43 (Dr. Hilda Ching) We were sort of looking for a focus for a bunch of women that had these feelings about where we were and who were and we decided — this was on advice of one of our members — Maggie Benson — that we should get a conference together because we didn’t know where the women were, and having been the only woman in all my zoology classes and going through and getting the only PhD in zoology from Nebraska, I sort of craved that kind of answer on where were the women and who they were.

6:24 (Evelyn Palmer) The organization had a conference in UBC, three day conference, which was the real big start of SCWIST.

6:33 (Mary Vickers) We applied to the various levels of government, and we got an amazing response — we got a positive response. The federal government women programs agreed to finance to pay for the conference for 350 people, and we could bring people from all over the world. The provincial government supported us as well, and so this was very empowering, just this whole positive response from the government agencies. And then locally we got lots of support — we got support from the university like UBC — they gave us an office, a phone, we had the conference at UBC, I think which we paid for, but they made life very easy for us and they were always with us, and I kept thinking “I don’t believe this”, it was a wonderful experience.

7:35 (Hiromi Matsui) When you are able to get significant funding, it’s such an encouragement to go on

7:43 (Mary Vickers) To have this conference, it was terribly important because it showed us women that look there’s all these wonderful women, and they’re all talented and they’re all working at some level in science, and they’re doing just fine. It’s a good thing, and we should work for more. And in that way in the conference, everybody was very affirming for our roles and our abilities.

8:12 (Dr. Abby Schwarz) I was sitting in the audience behind a group of high school students. I don’t know why they were there to begin with, because they were making snide comments to each other about women in science being nerds and not really being very desirable, as if desirability, well, for them it was the most important thing. And I was thinking “what can I do”, and the next person to step on the stage was Dr. Rhubarb Ward who was Lebanese, she was a distinguished professor at UBC of electrical engineering. And she taught — there’s two forms of bellydancing, and the kind she does is the kind just for family. It’s really different from the nightclub stuff. She has a really curvy figure and she was wearing a very tight flowery pink dress with cleavage to here, she has a mane of hair curly and long, and long eyelashes and she was wearing blood red lipstick and had bloodred finger nails and you could see the fingernails even from where I was sitting and high heels. And I heard this collective gasp from women in the front and I thought “yes”.

9:54 (Dr. Hilda Ching) It was difficult in getting funding because we had to learn how to apply for grants for different projects, but it was very successful, and I think it was because of this creativity that was spinning off of the ideas of women.

10:08 (Dr. Maria Gyongossy-Issa) There were a whole bunch of amazing people who would sit down, look at big questions — where can we get money to support our programs, and okay well this ministry has money or that ministry has money, okay what do we need to do to get that money. So we sat and get groups together, there would be people who would write some of the background, I remember Jackie would do a whole, Hilda did a whole bunch, Penny LaCouder did a whole bunch, there were other people who would just come on the board and they would write grants, and we wrote grants and lo and behold the money came. So we got funds through the years very nicely from various ministries, sometimes the federal, sometimes the provincial. They were extremely generous with us. And the programmes were successful.

11:03 (Mary Vickers) There was a wonderful program called girls in science which was our first program. It ran for 5 years from 85–89 or maybe it was 84–88, but I’ll tell you a little bit about it. We decided to target girls who were not necessarily privileged, girls who might not necessarily had an experience with a mother and a hammer, and we ran our first set of workshops down at Brittania school in Vancouver. It was a series of workshops which last for five mornings. We designed it in such a way that the kids worked in groups, because we felt that that’s something that girls need to learn how to do is to work in groups, as a team. So we worked in small groups so that we would learn how to not watch how somebody else did it. The objective of the workshop was to give the girls confidence in their ability to work with tools, to work with mechanical things because the studies had shown, which I learnt at the conference that the girls were disadvantaged in laboratory sciences because they didn’t have the experience of playing with tools, and a lot of things in physics involves the use of tools. And maybe the things you would do with your father in the workshop which guys do but as a rule girls did not. And one of the first ones was the bicycle workshop. And there the kids learnt how to fix a flat tyre, and they had the different kinds of tools, and it was not easy actually because it was very practical — because we all ride bikes but who knows how to fix a flat tyre — so they did that, and they had to learn how to build a birdhouse — how to use saws and nail and hammer, all while you learn how things work and how they fit together, and while thinking in three dimensions, which is another thing that they said girls didn’t have and so we thought we’d give them some experience. Also we made cement and we had advice from someone in engineering who’s specialty was cement. And they made a flower pot. And these were certainly not traditional activities.

14:00 (Mary Vickers) So anyway, there were workshops, these workshops were incredibly successful. And we ran the first ones in Vancouver. Then we decided okay if it runs in Vancouver, let’s take it out of town. So we targeted small towns, we went to four or five communities around BC and we hired a couple of graduate students and undergraduate students, female role models, there is our role model to instruct it all. We rented our van to put all our equipment in, we trained the instructers, and at the same time we also raised their consciousness I think about issues of women in science. Anyway, we did that for about three or four summers, and we went to a number of towns around BC, and it was a wonderful experience for us all.

14:56 (Dr. Penny Lecouteur) The programs that became established when I was on the board — I think the major one really was ms infinity.

15:10 (Dr. Penny Lecouteur) We all loved going to ms infinity conferences because they were such fun and there were many children, and even today kids come up to me and say do you remember many years ago you were at ms infinity while I went into science after that and I’m like “oh yes”, so that’s very cool. My favorite story about ms infinity was that I was president and Mary was making the ground application, so I had to go and sign the grant application. I drove across Burnaby when Mary was going to a college and we stopped by the road. She pulled out the grant and I got out of the car and got the grant application. So that’s my fond application of ms infinity, and it was something that we expanded and took all around the province but it was extremely worthwhile — that is something I was extremely proud of.

16:20 (Josefina Gonzalez) I particularly remember a time when I went with Maria to Vernon where we spoke to young girls as role models. And I did quite a few of this. Talking to young girls about what I did and how I balance family and work, and getting them interested in the kind of work I did. In 1989 I was asked/ invited to sit on the roundtable on the environment and the economy. And so that expanded my horizon and also how I tried to relate environment to my work and shred that with the young girls. I was introduced to Shad Vali program and I was able to introduce a course on sustainable development.

17:35 (Evelyn Palmer) SCWIST has been a very exciting organization and reaches out to women of all sorts. There have been very interesting programs. One is for immigrant women in science called IWIS. A number of women who have come to Canada from other countries have been able to get a start from IWIS.

17:59 (Dr Elena Brief): The immigrating women in science at the time when I was on the board really expanded and expanded in a virtual way. And there’s an online newsletter, online blog, and they had — that turns out to be an incredible way to reach immigrating women in science and because we are reaching them before they get to Canada. We have hits from all over the world, so women who are considering immigrating to Canada, who have a background from science and engineering are already seeking us out and getting in touch with us even before they come to Canada so that they could be a part of our program.

18:41 (Dr. Maria Gyongossy-Issa) Then there was Project Tomorrow that Penny LeCouter headed up and organized and that was a fabulous project. Then there was was Canadian Association for Girls and Science (CAGS) that Kelly started. Then we started XX evening at science world, and we started opening the door that science world still runs. The person who was most responsible for that was Michelle Mololo who was working at science world at that time. And that program is actually still running and so is XX. And it’s been well into 15 years now if not longer. The first XX evening we held at science world. And it was XX evening by the way for the 2X program chromosomes. But we allowed one XY to attend this event, and that was because Michael Smith had sponsored this, and he was very happy to see women in science networking events. So he came to visit actually for the first couple of years and he always made a cameo appearance, and I remember we presented him with Doseces beer, because that was the thing to do. But the purpose of it though was to get amazing women — we ended up calling them wonder women. Women that were working in the field of science whether it was engineering, technology and academia and any scientific field, and there were many women who work for the city, who would come and tell about what they did and how they got there. And then there was a panel discussion, which I think still holds nowadays ,and then women would tell about their bizzare paths, where they were that day, and who their mentors were and who their inspirations were and tehn we told them “Ladies, ok, now you go out and network, you go and talk to these people and shake their hands, present yourselves.” And their was this look of deer in the headlights kind of thing on all their faces, but then we tauhght them that you have to shake hands, present yoursekf well, do your what they call elevator pitch these days is — who am I and why should you remember me and then learn that if you got three names from somebody, you could then go and visit those three people. And then those three would give you three more names, and then you would visit those three people, and eventually you would make a life connection or a mentorship connection, and somewhere a job or volunteering position connection, and that would lead you on your career path. So that was the purpose of XX evening. And it was always held at science world. They were incredibly generous with us because they let us have the building, they showed the omnimax movie, we would eat pizza, we all hung out, and it was a great event that it still is and its still running.

21:43 (Dr. Elana Brief) One of the things that I was proudest of when I was on the board and really put effort in when I was president was developing a volunteers program. There were always SCWIST volunteers, and SCWIST volunteers the board members were always appreciated. And we sought to develop a very professional volunteers program. And I credit Dr. Lyndia Landon who was the chair of volunteers for putting together this program, and in the time that I was on the board, we went from having ten very active volunteers who were the board members to having hundreds of volunteers, that contiunue year after year. And we really believed and continue to believe with our board members that we that we could really live our mandate of SCWIST through our volunteer program, and what I mean is that we sought to empower women and give them experiences so that they couldn’t maybe have had as students who they could have had rich CVs when they went to look for jobs. And also on the other hand for women have had completed their careers, and wanted to give back, there was a way to give back through the volunteer program.

23:16 (Josefina Gonzalez) We were very productive, because we had a group of women who were dedicated, determined, creative and very focused on promoting math and science

23: 33 (Dr. Hilda Ching) When we get together to discuss things, we enjoy spinning things off and being creative, and so I think we have had no lack of ideas, and we have had no lack of support for all of the kinds of things we’ve done, beginning with the registry, beginning with the conference, and I think it was sort of like a — because we were new with this and because people were fascinated, we ended up giving presentations to people on employment and part time work and on science education. We organized all sorts of workshops for the science teachers. And these were — we were very practical. We wanted workshops that people would not only come out with not only ideas but lessons. And so the teachers that came here a few years ago ended up with petri dishes with little lesson plans — meal worms to take place to their classes. And the students — especially the girls — because that was one of our main focuses — to turn the girls onto science, to provide role models to encourage young girls to do hands-on kinds of sciences, provide the role models, and later on provide the mentors that we needed for the women continuing on into University.

25:03 (Dr. Maria Gyongossy-Issa) There were amazing people heading up all these programs and amazing people involved with them, and we just sort of jelled — that seemed the theme for everybody, is great people and great interactions. And we just got stuff done, we didn’t care whether we got stuff done, whether we would take a false step. It was full steam ahead, and damn the torpedoes, and we just did it.

Balancing work and life commitments

25:31 (Dr. Penny Lecouteur) I suppose we just coped. One of the things that was very important was support of other women, and particularly other working mothers and I remember the first time I went out to meet with SCWIST the first time we were planning the conference — it was at Hildas place, and my husband was away in the field — he was a geologist, and I had a 6 year old three year old, and Hilda said “Oh just bring them, I have lots of stuff down in the basement they can go to play with, I have boys too”, so first meeting — I took my kids with me and stuck them in the basement at Hilda’s place, and it was that sort of support over the years that SCWIST has been great at, for helping all of us and helping each other.

26: 30 (Tasoula Berggren) It was not easy to work full time and also have time for all these other activities, and it was possible because of the support that families gave — my family gave lot of support with — they were doing a lot of workshops for the women to help out and the enthusiasm of the members and colleagues of SCWIST.

26:59 (Josefina Gonzalez) You really need to be organized, and you need to know where you want to go, what you want to do.

27:11 (Dr. Maria Gyongossy-Issa) We didn’t think about life and work balance, we just did it, it was never a question of how to do it, we would just got it done, off we went.

27:28 (Dr. Diana Herbst) 1987–1988 An increase in political activism: when I was president at 1987–1988, at the AGM, where I began my term, we had Rosemary Brown as the main speaker, and she was the city counselor for a number of years as well as MLA. She challenged us to become more politically active, and that I think was the main focus we had as SCWIST in 87 and 88, at that time there were a lot of new technologies, and new technologies related to reproduction were simply exploding in the mid 80s. And we felt that there needed to be a good review of the social, legal and ethical implications of some of these new reproductive technologies and we wrote letters to our prime ministers and MPs that year, saying that this needs to be reviewed. We need a set of guidelines for dealing with sperm and eggs and vitro and zygotes in vitro and fetal tissue and all of the different aspects of reproduction that were now possible to manipulate, and I was very happy — it was announced in October 1989, it was announced that there was going to be a royal commission — to look at the implications of all of these reproductive technologies that was chaired by Patricia Baird from the Vancouver area, and had a number of prominent people on it. The report was available — I believe in 1993. But I like to believe that SCWIST played a major role in getting that Royal Commission initiated.

The Resource Centres

29:58 (Jackie Gill — SCWIST President 1992–1994): One of the things that I remember the most is that we opened the resource center, right? At Simon Fraser University, at the Harbour Centre Campus. And I came in as the president at that time.

30:12 (Dr. Penny Lecouteur) Getting the resource center made a huge difference. Before that we had been having boxes of equipment and boxes of record in people’s basements and in the attics. And I remember we still had some in the attic when I went to look the other day.

30:32 (Jackie Gill) It was a great thing — SFU was so supportive of the organization — and those two years I was very, very, put a lot of hours into SCWIST between 92 and 94, you know I spent a lot of hours in the resource centre, and we were very lucky to have access to rooms, and the facility and I found some old correspondence of the communications, helping us with the materials, you know whether it was press releases or trying to help us with the publicity and getting the word out about the organization and helping us celebrate some of those milestones.

31:21 (Hiromi Matsui) And then we were very fortunate that we got space at the YWCA which was fabulous because it was a new facility — it had a kitchen, it had a meeting room, and for many years we had prime office space, thanks to the generosity of the YWCA.

31: 40 (Mary Vickers) 1993 Michael Smith Wins the Nobel Prize for Chemistry: Remember back in 1993 when Michael Smith won the Nobel Prize? It was so exciting. It was in November 93 and the whole scientific community was just abuzz. And two days later than he was told he got his award, there was a science and technology dinner, and we were going from SCWIST, a number of us were going. It was huge — there were all these suits there, and there were many — 300 people at this gathering. There was so much buzzing because everybody was excited about Michael and how he had won this nobel prize. Now, at that dinner I was getting a very small award for science communication, and I had two minutes to give speach. I had pondered this for quite some time and I got up and gave my speech which was in essence that we are very successful in SCWIST at applying applying for grants and for getting grants for the first run of the program. Then if we want to renew the program and do it again, because it was so good, the funding agencies don’t want to sponsor that. They are more interested in pilot projects, and we thought that was counterintuitive, because we thought — if it’s a success, that’s the thing you should fund because that’s the kind of thing I said. Michael and I were old friends — we used to go skiing together many moons ago, and so we chatted afterwards. And I was sitting the next morning and I was grumpy because I was marking exams. And the phone rang and he said “Marie, it’s Michael”, and I was almost polite. And he said “I think I have a solution to your problem.” He said I’m going to give you a quarter of my nobel prize winning. And that sort of made me pay attention. “But you can’t tell anybody, because it isn’t sort of fixed yet.” But he did. He gave to SCWIST 625, 000 dollars to be used for our program, so that we did not have to go through the performance of always reapplying so that if we had successful programs, we could continue on with them. So that was a very exciting thing, and I think it’s important for people to know why he gave the money to SCWIST — he believed in promoting women in science. He put his money where his believes were. And we were very grateful to receive that.

35: 02 (Hiromi Matsui) It’s a wonderful memory to know that his kind of generosity was huge and made such a huge difference to SCWIST and its history and development.

35:10 (Jackie Gill) I can still remember sitting in the office in Vancouver with Dr. Smith and his accountant, and Rick Pepper who represented the provincial ministry for science and technology. And the CEO was there at the time — and they were talking about how to set up the fund, and the question that they were raising was how do we end it, how do we put closure, how do we collapse this gift at such time as there is no longer a need. And I don’t think the question was to me, I think it was to really everybody in the room. And I remember being just confused to the question, and thinking to myself — but why do we have to end it. Like I couldn’t envision there was an end. And there was Dr. Smith’s accountant, and he spoke up and he said “There will never be an end. There will always be a need to support women in science and technology.” Somehow.

Moving forward the work continues..

36:46 (Anna Stukas): In our strategic planning session in October, we spent a lot of time looking at both goals for a one year timeline and a five year timeline. And its always challenging in a strategic planning session not to decide that you’re going to take over the world, expand SCWIST from coat to coast and bring in 500 members. I think its very easy to get ambitious when you’re sitting in a board room with five boards in front of you. And to go through that process of putting all of those ideas together and all of those ideas out there and put on our sanity check and say “okay, there are ten of us, and we have a bunch of volunteers who are working with us, but pretty much all of us have full time jobs and full time school. What’s reasonable to accomplish?” And even after we’ve taken that step back and toned everything down, I think the goals we set out to accomplish were pretty ambitious. And I think we are actually getting there, we are achieveing them. And one of our board members moved to Toronto, and there is no similar organization in Toronto, so we’re now looking at setting up a SCWIST Toronto division, based on the enthusiasm of this former director and also a couple of women who came to XX evening and science world this year who live in the Toronto area, and they thought this was a phenomenal event and wanted to know how they could start to put something like that on where they were. So we’re now going to see if there is something that can make SCWIST a truly national organization. We are also looking at the NSERC chair for Dr. Elizabeth Croft who is based out of UBC to bring all the organizations with similar mandates that are in British Columbia together so that we can work together rather than competing for members or for participants. So we had our inaugural west council meeting earlier this year and we had I believe 15 organizations all with a mandate for women either in science, technology, engineering, in IT, girls in IT. And we had members from, or representatives from all of these different groups talking about how we could work with each other and how we can share resources and accomplish more without stepping on each other’s toes, and really I think that if we can continue to come together and continue to work together, that just provides us with a stronger of a base to further our mission of supporting, encouraging and empowering women, and girls in science, and engineering and technology.

40:21 (Dr. Elana Brief) One of the major challenges that we faced on our board was the question of relevance. Previous boards had done such a good job of encouraging women and girls in science that we started wondering what our relevance was. And infact I really credit SCWIST for 30 years ago in 1981 for bringing together all the thinkers in the world and infact creating daughter institutes all over the world that encouraged women and girls in science. So by the time I got on the board, the number of women who were accepted into university exceeded the number of men. In some of the scienc es — biology and chemistry, women were at par, even in some cases exceeding the number of men. Of course in engineering, computer science and physics, women are still lagging behind men in terms of enrollment. But we were really seeing that there was that switch and lots of undergraduate women didn’t see the relevance of SCWIST because they weren’t facing the barriers. The previous generation had done such a good job — they weren’t facing those barriers, so we had to start asking “What could we contribute to these women’s lives?” and we started focusing on were the questions of work life balance, the questions of soft skills, the questions of how you could be a woman doing science and leadership, rather than how could you be a person doing science and leadership as a woman.

42:13 (Anna Stukas) We have this amazing diversity and breadth of experience that can be drawn on, and as a result of that some of the initiatives that are starting to take place, that are seen both in implanting our 30th anniversary gala in looking for corporate sponsors in the grants that we are applying for and events we are taking on from an organizational perspective, I think that is largely expanding and made possible by this phenomenal group of women that we have who work together — some of whom don’t work in science or engineering at all — they just believe that this is a cause that is worthwhile, that is something that needs to be supported and pursued

Concluding Thoughts –

43:16 (Dr. Abby Schwarz) The more one understands of the history of how women have come so far, the more one will value ones position and life, and I think it’s really important, because I think if you don’t know what the legacy is, you won’t value it much, so I would just hope that women that are coming up now will just appreciate what has happened in the past.