After Ada: A conversation with Dr. Imogen Coe

October 11, 2016

While gender parity and equality have come a long way in the 21st century, most women can still remember the last time someone tried to insult them by telling them they did something “like a girl”. Decades after women fought and won the right to vote, this offensive expression has yet to burn itself out. You throw like a girl, run like a girl, hit like a girl. This description, slung as an insult, reflects an insidious attitude that consistently devalues girls (and women) and the way in which they engage with the world around them. That being said, things are starting to change. Born in the early 1800s, Ada Lovelace had a natural gift for mathematics from an early age. In her teens, she worked with the mathematician and inventor, Charles Babbage -- adding her own comments to Babbage’s Difference Engine. Her notes described how codes could be created for the device to process letters and symbols along with numbers. Lovelace also theorized a method for the engine to carry out a series of repeated instructions -- a process known as looping -- that computer programs still use today. Because of her work and vision, Ada is often considered to be the first computer programmer. Today, we celebrate Ada Lovelace Day to honour the contribution women have made to the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).

In honour of Ada Lovelace Day, Architech sat down with modern day champion for gender parity and leader in the scientific field, Dr. Imogen Coe, to learn about her personal and professional journey.

Upbringing, education, and passions

Dr. Coe has an impressive resume. After completing her undergraduate degree in Cell Biology at the University of Exeter (1984), Dr. Coe then came to Canada to complete a Master’s Degree and PhD in Comparative Molecular Neuroendocrinology (University of Victoria). She now serves as the Dean of the Faculty of Science at Ryerson University. Hailing from the United Kingdom, Dr. Coe grew up just outside of Cambridge where she attended an all girls school with her two sisters. Dr. Coe credits her parents with instilling in her a strong sense of social justice, from childhood.  She notes that she views the world through this lens and it influences many of her decisions, frames her world view and thus, her career.

Dr. Coe developed a love and appreciation for the natural world from a very early age. Growing up in the countryside, she can’t remember a time when she wasn’t fascinated by the world around her. Her love of science was nurtured by her father - a scientist - and she was encouraged to pursue her passions “regardless of being a girl”.

A new way to “do” science

The values that Dr. Coe holds dear - equity, diversity, and fairness - have informed her career path and have been a driving force in the direction her professional life has taken. Dr. Coe noted that what excites her most in her professional career is the “opportunity to build and facilitate, to help people grow ideas, bringing people together to make things happen”.

This passion for empowering the people around her has contributed to her sense that a new way to “do” science in downtown Toronto is needed. “Academic science has been alienated away from those who enable it and pay for it” said Coe. ”We need to close the gap in terms of science communications and literacy -- open it up to make it accessible so more people can become involved”. To Dr. Coe, this means following Ryerson’s lead -- “making science a strongly connected human practice that connects to the city, the community, other researchers, and the ongoing dialogues about scientific literacy and policy”. Dr. Coe also noted that these discussions will ensure that we have a healthy planet, better medical treatment, and open up the dialogue about science being something should all have access to.

Challenges facing women in STEM

Women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, but only 29% of the science and engineering workforce. Dr. Coe pointed out that “there are several things that people face when they don’t fit the stereotype. For example, not seeing yourself reflected or being the only one of ‘your type’”. Referencing her experience as the only woman in a room of male leaders and directors in a variety of scientific spaces, Dr. Coe noted, “when you’re not the majority, you can feel isolated [....] you can experience imposter syndrome”. Not only that, but your behaviour can feel closely monitored - women might question their inclinations to show a more emotional or human side because it might be misconstrued as being not very ‘scientific’.

Aside from the interpersonal concerns women face in the workplace, women also contend with challenges when it comes to balancing their home and professional lives. Dr. Coe recognizes that while we have more awareness of these issues and the barriers women face to inclusion, it’s not clear if much has actually been done about them. More discussions need to be had about support for delays women face in their careers due to childbearing. As well, Dr. Coe is adamantly supportive of men taking paternity leave and sharing the workload at home. Most of all, Dr. Coe views this as a “human rights issue, not a women’s issue” - one that must be tackled head on by both men and women in the field. “We must hold institutions and organizations accountable for ensuring that they provide an equitable and diversified workplace context”, said Coe. “Women must not be the only gatekeepers and change agents - when accountability doesn’t happen, there needs to be consequences for the institutions and organizations”.

International leadership in gender parity

When we asked Dr. Coe what cities and countries are leading the charge in this movement towards gender parity and equity in science, she had high praise for the U.K. and Australia. The Athena Swan program in England provides a platform for universities to engage in structural and systemic changes to promote gender equality. In order to catch up, Canada will have to find ways to work within the reality that education is a provincial mandate, which is different from the U.K.. Perhaps, Canada can look to Australia, a federation of states, more like Canada, where Sagepilot encourages universities and big organizations to get involved in changing policy and using metrics to demonstrate the impact they’ve had in achieving gender equity in the workplace.

Challenging the norms

When we asked Dr. Coe what women and allies can do to help call out and challenge the problematic norms in the scientific field, her answer was simple: know the issues. Dr. Coe noted that often, many women and men can’t name the issues - they don’t have the lexicon and awareness to call them out effectively. The best way to tackle this issue is to tune in, identify implicit biases, and develop strategies to call out and challenge the status quo (i.e. an all white, all male conference panel). “In order to empower people, we must give them the tools to name and call out the issues, identify the barriers, and build networks and support to hold people accountable”.

The next frontiers and advice for the future

We concluded our interview with Dr. Coe by asking what advice she’d give women entering the STEM field. “Have courage”, she said. “We must change the world that has girls believing that they will only be valued based on their looks”. Dr. Coe went on, “we need to challenge that message, tell them we value them inherently for their potential and that they have a contribution to make”. While none of this is easy, Coe contends, “it’s crucial that we never lose sight that our girls and women are worth our time, our energy, the fights we endure against policies -- they’re worth fighting the big fight for, worth being bold for, work making noise for”.

Hear, hear, Dr. Coe. We’re with you all the way.

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