Jan. 17, 2023

'Students would describe me as one of the best professors, and yet I don’t have the same recognition as my male counterparts when it comes to research impact'

Voices of UCalgary: Belinda Heyne on diversity in STEM
Belinda Heyne
Belinda Heyne Vladimir Kabanov

Voices of UCalgary is a new series that shares the stories and lived experiences of members of equity-deserving groups on campus. Voices stories complement the numerical data presented in UCalgary’s internationally recognized EDI Data Hub, by offering a more holistic understanding of equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility at UCalgary, grounded in the experiences of our community members. Voices of UCalgary emerged from our institutional participation in the Dimensions EDI Pilot Program. Learn more on the OEDI website

Our first Voices of UCalgary interview is with Dr. Belinda Heyne, PhD, professor in the Faculty of Science. Heyne speaks on her experience as a woman working in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) field. Women are one of the five equity-deserving groups (EDGs) along with LGBTQ2S+ persons, Indigenous peoples, visible/racialized minority persons, and persons with disabilities.

UCalgary context: Women in academic faculty

At UCalgary, 42.1 per cent of the total academic regular staff are women (2021), below the national average of 48 per cent. At just 30.4 per cent, they remain under-represented among full professors at UCalgary, although better represented at the assistant professor level (52.6 per cent). See more stats on the EDI Data Hub

A long history to advance gender equity exists at UCalgary, resulting in relatively better representation, infrastructure and supports and services when compared to members of other EDGs, including space, policies, and administrative data. Some faculties are predominantly women (education, social work, nursing), but in many others they remain underrepresented (e.g., medicine, science, and veterinary medicine).

Statistics Canada’s University and College Academic Staff System (UCASS) data show that in 2020, the average salary of full-time women teaching staff at the University of Calgary was $127,800 compared to the average salary of men at $151,100 (a 15 per cent gendered wage gap). A joint  gender equity review committee attributed the wage gap to factors such as rank, years of experience, and department/disciplinary differences. Currently a salary equity review is underway for clinical professors.

The power of diversity in STEM

As a child, Belinda Heyne had a passion for creativity. From musicals to experiments, she was fond of the stories of old-school detectives who used hands-on experiments and investigations to solve crimes.

"I became a researcher because I was meant to be," says Heyne. After completing her dual Bachelor's in Education and Science at the University of Liège, Heyne was encouraged by her supervisor to pursue her doctorate in physics.

"There's passion in discovery and learning new things," she says. The science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) field is notoriously dominated by men — but Heyne's passion for learning prompted her interest in pursuing lab research for her doctorate, a postdoc in chemistry and working as a professor within the Department of Chemistry.

Unfortunately, Heyne believes she continues to face unique challenges as a woman in STEM in both teaching and research. While her experience as an educator has helped students succeed over the years, Heyne often feels “overlooked” in comparison to men in the same fields.

“Students would describe me as one of the best professors, and yet, I don’t have the same recognition as my male counterparts when it comes to research impact.”

Confined to the 'teacher role'

Women in the academy often experience unconscious demotion, what Suzanne Wertheim refers to as “The unthinking habit of assuming that somebody holds a position lower in status or expertise than they actually do.” Women are more readily seen as teachers and assistants, whereas men are recognized as professors and researchers.

“It can be difficult as a woman to be strictly seen in the teacher role,” says Heyne. Recruitment for research, for example, is an uphill battle as she competes with men in building research teams. The public perception of women in the research field is vastly different from men, says Heyne.

“Students have preferred to work with those who have more recognition and visibility, and because of this perception of excellent research from men, I am faced with more barriers.”

Heyne recalls another instance from when she began at the university, where she encountered sexism from her colleagues, most of whom, were men: “It was the first social event I attended, and I was told, ‘You were not the first choice,’ and it was the last social gathering I was willing to go to.”

For Heyne, she describes these instances as the reality in the field of chemistry. The discipline is also characterized by a “publish or perish” culture that often presents systemic discrimination of women in STEM fields. “The Royal Society of Chemistry has recently published a report highlighting the existence of biases at each step of the publishing pipelines, which are clearly putting women at significant disadvantage when trying to disseminate their research,” she says.

An opportunity to advance research

Like most academics during the COVID-19 lockdowns, Heyne shifted to remote work, including her research. It was conducting Covid-related research that presented “an opportunity and example of why diversity is integral in the research realm to solve problems.”

Heyne’s research on the decontamination of masks was part of a global research consortium that included the World Health Organization, members of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other experts from around the world.

“We needed people from different backgrounds in education, from virology to chemistry to quality control specialists so we had the power of diversity to solve one challenge COVID-19 had created,” says Heyne.

There was a sense of urgency to address an existing problem with COVID-19, and it meant collaboration with experts from not only different specialties, but also from different continents and time zones. “There is power in diversity because you get the full picture,” says Heyne.

“It wasn’t necessarily that I was chosen for my gender identity — but I was seen as the trusted expert and source of information.” Heyne was able to bring her full self to the table — her research, knowledge and experience — which fuelled discovery and research collaboration.

Learn more about the Dimensions EDI Pilot Program and the EDI Data Hub on the OEDI website.

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