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Imogen Coe talks women in STEM

Dean of Faculty of Science addresses gender disparity in science education during Reddit AMA
March 14, 2017
Imogen Coe

Photo: Imogen Coe, dean of the Faculty of Science, discussed issues relating to women in science fields during a March 8 Reddit AMA.

Women comprise only 22 per cent, external link of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce. What can we do to make STEM education a more welcoming environment for all genders? To mark International Women’s Day (March 8), Imogen Coe, dean of Ryerson’s Faculty of Science and professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biology, addressed the issue of gender diversity in science by taking part in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything). Here are some of the highlights:

Have you experienced impostor syndrome? If/when you have, how have you learned to talk yourself out of it?

Yes! And so have most of the rest of the world. Estimates say about 75 per cent of people experience imposter syndrome at some point. So first realize that it is very common and lots of people around may feel the same. I found that talking to people, good friends, people that believed in me and supported my goals, was very helpful. Share stories and then share strategies to banish impostor syndrome. Learn to take a compliment and learn to take credit for your accomplishments. And when you start to doubt that you belong or fit in, remind yourself of your accomplishments and that you have something to contribute to the world. You have ideas and contributions that are worthwhile. Don't compare your "behind the scenes" with other peoples’ highlight reels!

I'm currently in a lab with a balanced work/life approach (finishing my doctorate), but I see what it has cost my PI to make it that way. I am anxious about leaving her lab, because I am unwilling to give up that balance. Over the longer term of your career, have you seen a shift toward accepting a work/life balance? Or are we where we were when you got into science?

Good question. I don't think there is a single way to have work/life balance—everyone is different. So perhaps don't compare to your PI - but think about how you would make it work—for you. What do you need to make it work? The balance comes and goes—it’s an ebb and flow and one thing about academic science is there is a lot of flexibility—which other professions don't have. Over the length of my career—there have been some significant improvements. I was a single parent with little kids and one time I wanted to attend a FASEB conference and bring my daughter—who was very well behaved—and used to hanging out with scientists even at the age of about 6 years old. I called the conference organizers. No children allowed, at all. I didn’t attend the conference. These days, many of the bigger conferences have good support for childcare and welcome parents (men and women) with children. So that is much better. There is more discussion about the issues—although they tend, in Canada, to still be framed as "women's issues"—instead of human rights issues.

Even as a single parent, I managed to juggle teaching and research. I wasn't perfect at any of it, but I'm sure I was good enough. And women are very hard on ourselves. I found it very useful to build a network of people I could count on—everything from emergency childcare to last minute grant reviewing. It doesn't have to be a big network, but it does have to believe in you and be there for you. There are thousands of women (and men) out there figuring out work/life balance and doing science.

So don't wait and worry, just jump in if that is what you want to do. Find a work environment that respects and supports equity, diversity and inclusivity. In the U.K., look for Athena SWAN award-winning departments. In Australia, look for institutions that have signed on to SAGE pilot. In the U.S., look for institutions that have been involved in ADVANCE. In Canada… crickets, crickets…. I'm working on trying to get Canada to sign on to some sort of similar initiative. Stay tuned!

Do you find that there are different problems for women in STEM in Canada vs. the U.S. and different approaches to these problems? And what approaches or interventions have been most successful?

A couple of people have asked me (offline) what my struggles have been as a woman in science and how I’ve dealt with them. I grew up in the U.K. and I think I struggled from a fairly early age with self-confidence, especially as a teenager. I wasn't the top of my class (although my grades were perfectly respectable) so I wish someone had given me the advice to be brave not perfect, and that it was okay to learn from failure. Certainly self-doubt contributes to imposter syndrome and I felt that very strongly when I became a new professor. I moved to Canada from the U.K. as an international student and that was a time of great adventure. I learned to be very self-reliant. Moving locations regularly was stressful—always have to start with making friends again—and it gets harder, I think, as you get older. But I've been fortunate in having a network of people who have just always been there through thick and thin. Having good people around you—supporting, championing you—is really important to me. And dogs—nothing like the love of some dogs to make everything feel better!

Many women in STEM don't want to get involved in activism, welcoming female colleagues and don't want to speak on gender equality. Do you have any message for them?

Here are some great Canadian women in STEM sites to follow: Lauren Drogos at, external link; Dawn Bazely at; Science Borealis at (all things science but with some great equity stuff too).

Do you have advice for a STEM female heading into grad school? Especially re: how do you find the 'right' lab for you?

For resources about equity, diversity and inclusivity, articles about Women in STEM and other bits and pieces, check out my blog site at

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