Documentary about women in science puts gender issues under the microscope

For women who have made science their career, there is seemingly no scientific explanation that can explain work challenges they face solely because of their gender.

Female scientists tell Edmonton filmmaker about their passion and challenges of the work

Carla Prado is a University of Alberta scientist, who conducts research into human nutrition and energy metabolism. (Brandy Yanchyk)

Science is about knowledge. It involves the gathering of facts to help create predictions and provide explanations.

But for women who have made science their career, there is seemingly no scientific explanation to explain the work challenges they face solely because of their gender.

It's an issue that Edmonton documentary filmmaker Brandy Yanchyk explores in her new film Ms. Scientist. The film goes to  Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, Greenland and Nunavut, talking to female scientists who are passionate about the work they do but frustrated by the challenges they face.

"I found out that there are a lot of barriers," Yanchyk told CBC's Radio Active on Friday. "Some of those were sexual harassment, discrimination. A big one was when they stopped to have a family and then …  re-entered the workplace."

One of the scientists Yanchyk interviewed was Carla Prado, a University of Alberta assistant professor who specializes in human nutrition and energy metabolism.

In the documentary, Brazilian-born Prado, who was named to Avenue Edmonton's Top 40 Under 40 list in 2017, talks about how hard it was for her to decide to have a child, knowing that it could negatively impact her career. 

"It took me one hour of talking to a family therapist to kind of put my priorities in perspective," Prado, who was pregnant at the time of the filming, says in Ms. Scientist.

Jaynie Yang is a professor in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. She tells her grad students that having children while juggling a science career isn't easy, but it is doable. (Brandy Yanchyk)

Yanchyk said she came away both surprised and saddened to hear the numerous anecdotes from mothers who carted their children to meetings and conferences — if, in fact, they chose to have children.

"To have a child or have a career is something that's a big choice," she said.

Jaynie Yang is another U of A professor interviewed in the documentary. A mother of two, the Yang tells Ms. Scientist that it wasn't easy when they were young — "that was the time I was super busy with work" — but she worked it out with help from her husband and a nanny.

"It's totally possible," Yang says she tells her female grad students who ask if having a family is feasible. "I mean everybody has to give a little bit. And so everything may not be absolutely perfect the way you would like it but it is possible."

'Be a scientist or be pretty'

The documentary also looks at what Yanchyk calls "unconscious bias," where female scientists deal with inappropriate comments of a professional or personal nature.

In one example, Jackie Dawson, an Arctic scientist and Canada Research Chair at the University of Ottawa, describes speaking on identical topics as a colleague, who is "a male scientist who has a big white beard and is a tall guy."

Her male colleague is often asked to share his data, while she is often challenged on the accuracy of hers.

For Prado, insensitive comments directed her way have been personal in nature, relating to her looks or her Latino background, Yanchyk said.

"Honestly," said Yanchyk, "someone even … made jokes about her being a stripper, made jokes about her makeup. It's very upsetting to hear her situation.

"They told her, 'You don't look like a scientist. And you have to choose being a scientist or being pretty.' That was basically it."

Yanchyk cites UNESCO Institute for Statistics that say less than 30 per cent of the world's researchers are women, but she also noted that Canada under the guidance of Federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan is making strides to change the picture.

In November 2017, Duncan announced changes to the Canada Research Chairs program with an eye to forcing universities to improve the diversity of gender, race or heritage for those in the position.

Since then, there has been an increase in women appointed to research chair positions, Yanchyk said, but "basically, the federal government, in order to get [women] to equality had to threaten to withhold funding."

Yanchyk said she hopes the documentary will start people thinking about ways that society could be more helpful to women juggling family and careers, science or otherwise.

"Lots of women are trying to balance having a heavy career and children. And it's very challenging."

Ms. Scientist airs in Alberta and B.C. on CBC-TV on Sept. 1 on the Absolutely Canadian stream.