Group photo of Women in STEM Book Club

Members of the University of Toronto Women in STEM: Leading and Reading book club at their November, 2019 meeting.

February 11 is International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Currently, less than 30 per cent of researchers worldwide are women and, according to UNESCO data, only around 30 per cent of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education.  

At the University of Toronto, a small book club started by Christine Allen, scientist and professor at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, provides a safe place for women across campus to connect and share challenges, experiences and ideas about diversity, equity and inclusion. Female and male graduate students from across STEM disciplines have been attending the club since it launched in the summer.

“Our small book club has been a great way to foster a sense of community in a large university”

“Our small book club has been a great way to foster a sense of community in a large university,” said Allen who is also associate vice-president and vice-provost, strategic initiatives at U of T. “It started as a conversation with a few female graduate students and, with their help, has grown into a monthly opportunity that attracts students and faculty from across disciplines.”

Christine Allen in discussion at the Women in STEM Book Club January, 2020 meeting
Christine Allen engages with book club members at the Women in STEM Book Club January 2020 meeting.

Discussions often extend beyond the books themselves and into experiences students and faculty members have had in academia. For Eliza McColl, PhD student in Pharmaceutical Sciences, hearing from female faculty members is especially meaningful. “It’s really impactful for us to have faculty members in the room sharing their experiences and how they’ve handled certain situations in their careers,” she said.

Natalie Enright Jerger, a professor in U of T’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, first learned about the book club from a promotion displayed on digital screens in the department. She has been attending the club since and suggested January’s book of the month, An Inclusive Academy: Achieving Diversity and Excellence, by Abigail J. Stewart and Virginia Valian. “I feel very welcome and it’s good a boost to my mental wellbeing to come to the book club and share thoughts and ideas,” said Enright Jerger who has long had an interest in equity and diversity issues in academia. “It’s nice to meet people outside of my niche.”

People have also started to connect outside of the book club, says Allen. “I’ve seen students building their own relationships from this group and taking time to support each other. Resilience is crucial to success and the more we make time and space to support one another, the more resilient we will be, and the further ahead we’ll be.”

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