In 2004, Gregory Taylor, then dean of the U of A’s Faculty of Science, discovered that even though more than 50 per cent of the undergraduate science population was female, women made up only 14 per cent of faculty numbers. Not only that, but that percentage hadn’t changed in seven years.
To remedy the situation, Taylor
created the position of Associate Dean
(diversity). Margaret-Ann Armour (’70 PhD, ’13 DSc)—an experienced
champion of women in science who
taught in the Department of Chemistry
for nearly 30 years—was appointed to
the position in 2005.
“I was just getting ready to retire,”
recalls Armour. “I already had a list of
things I wanted to do in my retirement.
One of them included encouraging
women in science and engineering,
and since this position supported my
goal, I decided to take it.”
Given that there are fewer women than men in the sciences, those women at the top of their game are usually also in high demand by schools other than the University of Alberta.
Armour wasn’t starting with a blank
slate. She had previously founded the
Women in Scholarship, Engineering,Science, and Technology (WISEST)
program in 1981 and served on the
board of the Canadian Centre forWomen in Science, Engineering, Trades,and Technology (WinSETT) since 2010.
These experiences, plus her knowledge
of the research on women in science,
gave her a solid foundation from which
to develop a diversity program.
Armour’s first step in her new role
was to create Project Catalyst, a series
of 13 initiatives designed to increase
the diversity of the Faculty of Science, from identifying strong female
candidates for individual positions
and personally inviting them to apply,
to lobbying for adequate high-quality
daycare spaces on or near campus, to
implementing a mentoring program
for new female faculty.
It’s an ambitious program: since
2005, Armour has overseen the hiring
of 14 women out of 37 faculty positions
in total—almost 40 per cent. During
this time, the university also hired its
first woman in computer science in
18 years—a highly sought-after software engineer, Sarah Nadi, who started
in the summer of 2016.
However, 11 years after Armour
was hired, the overall percentage of
female faculty has increased to only
15 per cent total.
“If there were only one or two problems
keeping us from getting more women on
faculty, we’d have solved them by now.
But it’s much more complex than that.”
“What this highlights is that gender
diversity is a multi-faceted problem,”
says Armour. “If there were only one or
two problems keeping us from getting
more women on faculty, we’d have
solved them by now. But it’s much
more complex than that.”
First of all, it’s difficult to find women
who are even interested in taking on
faculty positions. “When I talk to female
graduate and postgraduate students, I’m
disappointed to hear that many of them
aren’t interested in an academic career,”
she says. “They don’t want the lifestyle
that their supervisors have.”
Given that there are fewer women than men in the sciences, those
women at the top of their game
are usually also in high demand by
schools other than the University
of Alberta. “These are top-notch
researchers,” says Armour. “They
often have competing offers from
It can also be difficult to convince some of the candidates to
move to Edmonton, an unfamiliar
city without the cachet of Toronto
or cities in Europe or the U.S. “To
counter this, we try to bring on
women who have some connection
to the city,” explains Armour. “They
may have done one of their degrees
here or have family here.”
Then there is the problem of
retaining those women who are
already on staff, as they are often
recruited by other universities.
“In the Department of Earth and
Atmospheric Sciences, for example,
we had six women faculty but lost
three between 2013 and 2015,”
says Armour. The Department of
Mathematical and Statistical Sciences
was similar, with its six female faculty
in 2009 dropping to three in 2016.
“We’re recognizing that, while we’re a research-
intensive university, we’re here because of students.
If we bring in someone who can’t connect with
undergrads, we’re not doing the university a service.”
There are positive trends too, however. “The selection committees are now
completely committed to increasing
diversity,” says Armour. “They’re more
The committees are more aware of
things such as the inherent bias in reference letters written for women versus
men and take into account more than
just research ability when evaluating an
applicant’s CV. “We’re recognizing that,
while we’re a research-intensive university, we’re here because of students. If
we bring in someone who can’t connect
with undergrads, we’re not doing the
university a service,” says Armour.
While more work remains to be
done, Armour feels that her diplomatic
approach to the problem is paying
dividends. “I ask committee members
questions rather than telling them how
to do things,” she says. “I don’t tell them
they’re doing things wrong. I ask them
to be aware of the influences on women
when they’re making decisions. Seeing
such a huge change in their attitudes
really makes me feel like things are
If the university can keep up its
rate of hiring 40 per cent female faculty
and encourage existing female faculty to
stay, they’ll be on track to significantly
increase the number of female faculty in
the Faculty of Science, a positive for the
entire University of Alberta campus.
Sarah Boon (’05 PhD) spent seven years as an
environmental science professor. Her articles
about academic culture, women in science, nature,
and the environment have been published in print
at Outpost, BC Forest Professional, and iPolitics,
and online at Canadian Science Publishing, the
Nature Conservancy of Canada, and the Canadian
Science Writers’ Association. She has forthcoming
work at CBC’s The Nature of Things and Terrain.
org. Sarah is a co-founder and serves on the board
of directors of Science Borealis, where she was
the earth & environmental science editor. Find her
at Watershed Moments or on Twitter @SnowHydro.
Inspiring the Next Generation of Students
Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour School opens in Edmonton’s southwest
Armour beams while posing with two of the students at the newly opened Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour School in Ambleside in Edmonton’s southwest.
For more than a quarter of a century,
Margaret-Ann Armour has been Canada’s
premier ambassador of science, volunteering
tirelessly to raise national awareness among
school-aged girls, educators, parents, and
employers of the importance of encouraging
women to enter science and engineering.
In recognition of Armour’s exemplary
contributions to the community and lifelong
dedication to learning, the Edmonton Public
School Board has bestowed its highest
honour on this indefatigable leader, naming
one of its newest schools in her honour. The
Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour School— which
opened this fall in Edmonton’s Ambleside
community to serve students in kindergarten
through grade 9—was named to serve as
inspiration for the 600 students and teachers
who will roam the new halls. Armour remains
active in her engagement of grade-school
students in both urban and rural settings. “I
want kids to have fun with science,” she says.
“That’s what keeps them interested.” Armour
was on hand on the first day of school to
welcome students and teachers to the new
year and did her best to greet every single
one of them with hugs, handshakes, and
words of encouragement.