The Chronicle Herald: COMMENTARY: Nova Scotia shows how to keep women in science

The recent Nobel Prize in Physics for Donna Strickland highlighted the issue of gender imbalance in science.

Strickland is one of only three women and the first in 55 years to receive the prize. Before she won, she was denied a Wikipedia page, even though her 1985 breakthrough led to corrective laser eye surgery for millions of people.

The federal government encourages women to “choose science,” and institutions are responding. Dalhousie University recently announced that since 2016 they have more than doubled the number of female students entering computer science.

As a researcher, I’ve found many women are interested in science. The challenge is getting them to stay. According to the United Nations, female students are only a third as likely as their male peers to complete doctoral degrees in science-related fields.

In Nova Scotia, we’re doing many things right, and the benefits go beyond statistics. Keeping women in science grows businesses, provides local employment, and improves well-being — including, in my case, helping treat cancer.

To continue this trend, we need to identify what’s gotten us here. Changed mindsets about the value of a PhD, work-life balance, and increased entrepreneurship are essential for keeping women in science.

Research requires advanced degrees, and we still tend to assume that all PhDs will become professors, even though less than one in five PhDs works as a full-time professor in Canada.

The professor-or-bust mindset pushes many women away from research because the path is rigid and uncertain. I spent seven years as a postdoc, a low-paid researcher with a PhD, before I got my first “real job.”

This mindset has been slowly changing, thanks to increased internship opportunities. Organizations like Mitacs, for instance, connect businesses with researchers, including 200 projects in Nova Scotia alone.

My company uses internships to ensure we have the best research talent. Since the graduate pool in immunology has a high percentage of women, my research team is currently more than 90 per cent women.

Of our two original Mitacs interns, one was hired and is now our director of product development. The other is now a professor at Dalhousie, who both collaborates and supervises new interns with us.

Seeding academia with professors who understand how companies operate helps break the cycle of a single-career-track mentality and support more women who want to continue as researchers with flexible options. This is critical for women scientists who want to stay in Atlantic Canada.

Building enough businesses to keep women scientists requires a too rare skill: entrepreneurship. Although a third of entrepreneurs in Canada are women, men are twice as likely to own businesses in technology, science and engineering.

Entrepreneurship is important for scientists. My company is currently testing ovarian cancer treatments that started as basic research. Now, we’re treating cancer.

Helping seed good ideas helps bring more women, and breakthroughs, out of the lab. It’s good for women, the province, and millions of people. It’s also good science.


Marianne Stanford is vice president of research at IMV Inc., a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company dedicated to making immunotherapy more effective, more broadly applicable, and more widely available to people facing cancer and other serious diseases.

Byline: Marianne Stanford