Bringing STEM gender divide message to CSA

Adela Talbot // Western NewsElise Harrington, an MSc candidate in the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration, will address the annual Canadian Space Summit on the opportunities and barriers facing women in science today. At the conference, hosted by the Canadian Space Society in Ottawa, she will be the youngest presenter and the only one not currently holding an academic or professional position in the field.

In September, Elise Harrington was among the minority of female presenters at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Adelaide, Australia. It didn’t matter she had attended major conferences before – at IAC, there was a moment she was made to feel profoundly uncomfortable.

“I was at a networking event and was sexually harassed. I had another guy say to me that women don’t have to worry about being smart,” said Harrington, an MSc candidate in Western’s Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX).

Roughly 25 per cent of the presenters at IAC were women, she added, and it wasn’t the first time she felt the gender divide in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines. It wasn’t the first time Harrington had heard such comments and, by way of colleagues and friends working and studying in STEM, she had heard much worse.

Next week, she will discuss the opportunities and barriers for women in science at the annual Canadian Space Summit, a conference hosted by the Canadian Space Society (CSS) in Ottawa. She will be the youngest presenter and the only one not currently holding an academic or professional position in the field.

“I will be talking about my experience in the field, internship opportunities I’ve had, recommendations to students and talking about adversity issues as there are still not as many women in STEM,” Harrington noted.

“I’ve fortunately been pretty lucky, compared to women I know. My mother was in science. Growing up, I never felt there was any block stopping me from going into these fields. It’s good to see a shift in women in STEM, but lesser representation and not having very many women in the field, women presenting at conferences, still has implications for women who want to pursue careers in STEM,” she continued.

Combining her love of rocks and space, Harrington has imaged Mars, studied the mountains and channels on Venus, determined the compositions of meteorites, and is currently working with Earth Sciences professor Catherine Neish, using satellite-borne radar for geological mapping in the Canadian Arctic. Harrington came to Western to study with Neish who has been an academic and personal mentor, sharing her experiences of gender-based adversity in STEM.

“My experience in Planetary Geology is going to be different than women who are interesting in entering engineering, which still has poor representation of women. But I have been on field trips in remote places, an island in the Arctic, which is uninhabited, and I was the only female on my expedition team,” she noted.

Women working and studying in STEM today need to be persistent, and remember above the adversity and discrimination they may face, they need to pursue what they love in order to succeed and create a more diverse and welcoming environment for future generations of women, Harrington added. You have to be confident “your passion for what you are doing is strong enough to overcome the obstacles.”

As for harassment and sexist remarks one might encounter along the way, it’s important to acknowledge them, she noted.

“The easiest thing is to ignore it, but it’s better to acknowledge that behaviour and that it isn’t tolerated or acceptable, to try to get male allies on board to notice when these types of comments occur,” she said.

“This is an issue not just in STEM. There is a societal shift in realizing these types of behaviours are harmful and not appropriate, which is good that people are starting to recognize that. Even making small comments can really add up to a woman’s self-esteem and how she views herself as a member of a community, scientific or otherwise.”

Her supervisor, CPSX and Western have been immensely supportive – and CPSX has produced “a lot of fantastic women in Planetary Science,” Harrington said. She hopes to pursue a PhD and a career in planetary mission work or space policy.

“My supervisor is very receptive to experiences as a woman in science and can relate to facing sexual harassment as a graduate student. She has been able to provide really good mentorship and I think she’s been an excellent role model. I would love to follow in her footsteps and provide that same mentorship as part of a faculty somewhere.”