Elana Brief believes it’s important to encourage women to become scientists because, for one thing, this leads to better science. The 38-year-old, Toronto-born health researcher is the president of the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology, a Vancouver-based organization that works to empower women and girls in the fields of science, engineering, and technology.
Brief works as a research director for the Women’s Health Research Network and as a research scholar at the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia. She received her PhD in physics from UBC in 2000.
The Georgia Straight reached Brief by phone at the National Core for Neuroethics.
What is the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology up to these days?
We’re a non-profit that promotes, encourages, and empowers women and girls in science, engineering, and technology. So, we have a bunch of programs.
One is for girls, and it’s called the Ms. Infinity program, where across B.C. and the Yukon we set up events where girls can meet women who are working in science, engineering, and technology. So, they can meet people who are potential role models, do hands-on experiments with them.
Another program we have is called IWIS, and that’s Immigrating Women in Science. That’s for women who have immigrated to Canada, who their credentials aren’t necessarily acknowledged here. We’re creating a community with them and for them, and also seeing how we could make it an easier transition for them to get into the Canadian workforce in their field of expertise.
Then we also have our member programs, which are professional-development programs for women in science and technology, and networking programs—networking events.
Are women under-represented in science and technology?
In some sciences and technologies. So, of course, women, I think, they’re the majority in biology and then they’re at par in chemistry. But, in physics, information technology, and engineering, they’re really under-represented. Also, if you look at different sciences, women are under-represented when it comes to, in the university, the professorial level, and they’re under-represented in business and industry when it comes to senior management and leadership positions.
What workplace conditions can help increase the representation and retention of women in scientific and technology workplaces?
There are questions, like, “What are women-friendly policies?” One thing is having a baby-friendly environment—and I don’t mean that you bring your baby to the manufacturing plant with you.
Well, I’ll go at it from a different direction. So, we—SCWIST members—do go to a lot of events for high-school students. Often what high-school students ask is, “Can you have a baby and be a scientist?” So, when we think about work-life balance, those are the types of policies that need to be put in place—that women can still advance if they’re also having a family.
Why is it important to encourage women to go into science and technology?
I would say that there are three main answers. One is that you get better science. There’s a lot of evidence that teams—this is in the business world—that have men and women in them have better production, better results, and it’s true in science too.
The other thing is, just from a business-model perspective, our country is half women. But, if our workforce is ignoring half the population, then that’s not good for the country economically. So, just on an economic level, we need to expand the workforce, and that could include women.
Then there’s a social-justice argument, which is that people who are in the sciences make more money than people who have gone through the arts, for example. If we have anything structurally that’s excluding girls from going into the sciences, then we actually are excluding them from lucrative careers.
Why do sex and gender need to be taken into account more in health research?
Both sex and gender can have an influence over risk factors for diseases, trajectory of disease, and severity of disease. Just going from a disease model right now—just talking about illness—in research, one needs to look both at sex and gender to make sure that one knows what all these factors are. A very good example is, in heart health—you’ve probably been following this—men and women have different symptoms of cardiac arrest. So, as more research is done and the differential symptoms are better identified, then there will be better outcomes for women. So, that’s just from the illness model.
But also, from more of a wellness model, health-promotion messaging might be different for men and women. So, if we want people to do these things, like stop smoking and exercise and eat better, that the messaging might be different if one is a man or is a women—that’s more about gender. So, in health research, we do need to be paying attention to both sex and gender to make sure that we’re getting the best outcomes for everyone and best service delivery for everyone.
What is the focus of your research at UBC?
I’m also in physics at UBC, but the main thing I told you about was neuroethics. I’m working with a First Nations community in B.C., looking at cultural perspectives of brain health and aging, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.
With most aboriginal communities, they don’t subscribe to an illness model; they subscribe to a wellness model. So, they don’t presume the same pathological ideas that we in the West have around aging. We make aging into an illness, and, I think, traditionally many First Nations communities would not see aging as illness.
So, this is interesting in terms of neuroethics, because it’s an ethical question almost. But it’s an interesting question about how does one think about aging, whether pathologically or whether it’s normal, and what are the implications for when there is something that is difficult like dementia—that could be potentially difficult for a community and for an individual.
Every Friday, Geek Speak catches up with someone in Vancouver’s technology sector, video-game industry, or social-media scene. Who should we interview next? Tell Stephen Hui on Twitter at twitter.com/stephenhui.