Focusing on sexism in science


Photo by Andreas Patsiaouros
Photo by Andreas Patsiaouros

Walking into the Wilfrid Laurier University Library, you’ll come across portraits of empowered female scientists fighting against common stereotypes that come with their roles in a male-dominated work field.

Hosted by the Library, the Wilfrid Laurier University Graduate Students’ Association and Laurier’s Centre for Women in Science, the “#DistractinglySexist: Confronting Sexism in Canada’s Tech Triangle” exhibit touches on the negative image some people may project with women in science.

Eden Hennesy, PhD student and GSA student researcher of the year for 2015, produced the exhibit to bring more attention of gender discrimination to students.

According to Hennessey, the attention from the Laurier community has been overwhelmingly positive, with students and professors using the hashtag, #DistractinglySexist on social media to promote the gallery.

Unfortunately, the positive attention also came with negative criticism.

“I think that even getting a negative reaction is still a reaction,” Hennessey explained. “Somebody cared enough to say something negative, which is still valuable to me because they care enough to do, so I’ve hit a nerve.”

Hennessey didn’t want to focus on the negative statements made about women in science, particularly comments made by Nobel Prize winner and biochemist Tim Hunt, who suggested sex-segregated labs to a group of female scientists.

Rather, Hennesey focuses on how women in particular reacted to the exhibit through social media.

“[Female scientists] are wearing their science garb and hazmat suits and it’s like … this is sexy?”

Hennessey also wants viewers to drift way from stereotypical images men and women may have about female scientists.

“There’s this really dichotomist sort of images that we project for women in science where we say … you’re either hypersexualized or you’re completely asexualized; what about the fact that you’re a scientist?”

Recently, Waterloo region ranked the worst place to be a woman in Canada by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, with women earning just 66 per cent of what men make. Hennessey wants to also bring attention to gender disparity and the gender wage gap.

“We know the gender disparity and the gender wage gap for instance is the worst in Canada here in the Kitchener-Waterloo region, women are more stressed out and women are more underemployed.”

Commercial photographer Hilary Gould contributed her photography to the #DistractinglySexist exhibit because of her own experiences with being a female entrepreneur in a male-dominated career field.

“I felt that obviously I could brainstorm some of my experiences and feelings into the project as well, so a big part too was the challenge of ‘how do you take someone’s written work and research and translate that into something visual so people could understand how they feel?’” Gould explained.

Hennessey hopes after seeing the exhibit, women will realize confrontation is an option they have in response to sexism and hopes men will feel empowered to support their female colleagues as professionals.

“I do not in any way want them to be demonized or villainized or framed as an ‘us against them’ sort of thing. This is something that my male colleagues are just as supportive as my female colleagues.”

Though the exhibit was shown from September 1 to 22, Hennessey hopes it will have a proper permanent home, such as the Centre for Women in Science or the Communitech building in Kitchener.

“I want people to feel empowered to make a change possibly going forward.”


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