Judy Illes

University of British Columbia neurologist Judy Illes, above, along with her colleague Catherine Anderson, resigned from the selection committee of the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame this month after realizing that no women had been nominated for induction two years in a row. (University of British Columbia)

Two female researchers tasked with helping to recognize the top scientists in the country have stepped down from their duties to protest lack of recognition for other women in the field.

Judy Illes and Catherine Anderson resigned from the selection committee of the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame this month after realizing that no women had been nominated for induction two years in a row.

 To have zero women two years in a row signifies a failure on our part to really reach out as needed.
- Judy Illes, University of British Columbia

Illes, a professor of neurology at the University of British Columbia, called for more direct efforts to solicit nominations of female candidates after men swept the ballot during the 2013-14 nomination period. When the result was duplicated for 2014-15, Illes stepped down to voice her objections to what she felt was a flawed process.

Anderson, a member of UBC's faculty of medicine, followed suit days later.

The Canada Science and Technology Museum, which houses the Hall of Fame, runs a nomination period of approximately one year during which the public is invited to put names forward for consideration. Illes said she pushed for officials to be more aggressive in advertising the nomination process among universities and other institutions, but feels her calls were ultimately ignored.

Canada Science and Technology Museum Ottawa

The Canada Science and Technology Museum, which houses the Hall of Fame, runs a nomination period of approximately one year during which the public is invited to put names forward for consideration. (CBC)

"We...did not do a satisfactory job in eliciting a full range of possible nominations," Illes said in a telephone interview from Vancouver.

"There are great science and engineering women out there in Canada today who have been part of our communities. To have zero women two years in a row signifies a failure on our part to really reach out as needed."

Anderson agreed, saying her decision to step down was an effort to force the museum to change its ways.

"There were some good suggestions made last year and we didn't act on them," she said. "I was afraid that if we just kept making suggestions and kept thinking that we'd do them next year, it would always be next year."

Museum spokesman Olivier Bouffard said Illes raised the lack of female nominees as a concern last June in the middle of the 2014-15 nomination period. He said the organization felt her concerns were valid and said officials are working to address the issue, but declined to offer further details.

Misunderstandings over proposal

Misunderstandings abound, since both sides have different perceptions of what Illes proposed to address the gender disparity.

"What we understood is that Dr. Illes wanted us to start over the nomination process midstream when she expressed those views in June," Bouffard said. "...We didn't feel it was fair to those who had been nominated who are deserving scientists in and of themselves."

Illes contends that she proposed allowing existing nominations to stand while working more aggressively to solicit new ones from a more diverse candidate pool.

"We're at a time now when we have to make that extra effort until we find a better balance," she said, adding that she hopes to rejoin the selection committee if that effort is made.

At least one industry observer feels that outreach effort should be targeted far beyond scientific and academic circles.

Organizations have sprung up across the country with the primary goal of attracting youth to the sciences, many of which focus specifically on girls.

Jennifer Flanagan, chief executive of youth outreach organization Actua, said the dearth of female nominees stems largely from public perceptions of women's role in the sciences.

The fact that nominations come from the public, she said, suggests that people don't perceive women as viable candidates for such prestigious honours.

More prominent recognition of women's achievements in the field would do a great deal to establish female role models and promote equality, she said.

"(The controversy) is reflective of a broader societal issue that has nothing to do with the museum and everything to do with the fact that we don't know enough about females," she said. "The opportunity here is to raise that profile."