An Old Boy’s Club

When engineering students returned to Toronto’s Ryerson University this fall, they were struck by a conspicuous absence: the lively enthusiasm of Dr. Galina Okouneva.

Okouneva, who had until recently been employed as an associate professor in Ryerson’s Department of Aerospace Engineering, was well known among students for the development of an exciting lab: a demonstration of shock waves in a wind tunnel. She also helped send a Ryerson student team to Huntsville, Alabama to participate in a moon-buggy competition sponsored by NASA – one of only two student teams from Canada to take part.

“Dr. Okouneva is an excellent mentor,” says Aradhana Choudhuri, a former engineering student, who is currently employed at the Canadian Space Agency in Montreal. “She was one of my Masters’ thesis guides, and her unrelenting dedication to her students’ learning and research has been demonstrated repeatedly.”

Okouneva was also highly regarded in the arena of space research. In 2008, was awarded, as the Principal Investigator, a unique, peer-reviewed National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) grant. Worth almost $400,000, delivered over a period of three years, it was the largest grant in space research ever awarded to any professor in her department.

Nevertheless, this past May, Okouneva was denied tenure – one of five women, in fact, who were recently denied tenure at Ryerson. The Ryerson Faculty Association is currently bringing her case before an Ontario arbitrator.

“Sadly, engineering, at Ryerson at least, is still very much an ‘old boy’s club,’” says Dr. Okouneva.

The situation at Ryerson does not appear to be exceptional. Statistics show that, in Canada, today, engineering remains a strongly male-dominated field: only 9 per cent of all licensed engineers in Canada are women, as compared to 30 percent of professionals practicing medicine or law.

As well, while women have increased their place in academia, their participation in engineering and the sciences still remains far below that of men. Female presence is highest at lower academic levels and decreases as rank increases. A 2010 study conducted by the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) found, for example, that women make up only 12.2% of all Full Professors in the engineering and natural science disciplines.

And far fewer female scientists are selected for department heads or “chairs.” Among the research institutions belonging to the Association of American Universities, approximately nine out of ten department chairs in engineering, mathematics, and the physical sciences remain men. Recent studies furthermore reveal that women’s, as opposed to men’s, tenure application process is more often delayed by procedural inconsistencies.

The lack of strong female role models is particularly problematic: A 2002 study, cited by Engineers Canada, highlights the importance that women place on mentoring. “Young people generally prefer to work with mentors and role models who are like themselves,” researchers Naomi C. Chesler and Mark A. Chesler write, “and this is especially difficult for women in science and engineering fields.”  Currently, Ryerson’s Department of Aerospace Engineering counts only one female among its staff of 16 professors.

“In the world of academia, where free speech and independent ideas are historically the cornerstone of its institutions, discrimination against women is real,” Dr. Monique Dubé has reported.

Dubé was recently recognized as the 2011 Canadian Geographic Scientist of the Year. Less than one month ago, she held an esteemed, federal-government-supported Canada Research Chair in Aquatic Ecosystem Health Diagnosis at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S). Her world-renowned approach for safeguarding Canadian waters focuses on improving access to water health information and managing watersheds towards sustainability.

Over the course of her career, she acquired over $16 million in research funding for the U of S, published more than 180 papers, trained 75 staff and graduate students, gave over 100 annual presentations, and served on advisory panels for national and international (including United Nations) agencies.

Nevertheless, on Sept 1, 2011, she quietly accepted a severance package and left her position at the U of S — after having filed an earlier complaint of harassment against a senior university administrator with both the U of S and the provincial Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) department. At the time of her leaving, the OHS was in the midst of investigating the University for taking retaliatory action against her. Furthermore, during the third week of September, the University unilaterally disconnected and seized a computer server, upon which was running Dr. Dubé’s own software program for the assessment of the health of river systems.

Dubé has long been vocal about the plight of women in science and academia. “Female scientists who want to succeed in academia must keep their heads down and not speak out against inequities,” she has said.

Since her abrupt departure from academia, she has landed on her feet. She just accepted a position as the Environmental Risk Management Research Lead for Water with Total E&P Canada Ltd. in Calgary, Alberta. In this role she will work with a team to develop and coordinate industrially supported research in the oil sands to reduce environmental impact. “I also plan to continue my work to eliminate barriers for women in academia and science,” she says.

As a start, she has put out a call for contributions for a non-fiction anthology of the life stories of women working in science and in academia. Tentatively titled Dropped Futures, it will “raise awareness of the real barriers and discrimination that women in the sciences and academia still face, and will counter the increasing pressures on women in these fields to be silent.”

“My idea for the collection is based upon Random House’s popular Dropped Threads anthologies,” she says. “These anthologies [which were published in 2000 and 2003 and edited by Carol Shields and Marjorie Anderson] encapsulated lessons learned by women, to be told to women, capturing threads of common experience, understanding, strength, courage and common ground.”

“All of the stories in my upcoming anthology will be true and will be provided by individual authors of their own accord. In some cases, names and places will have to be altered to protect the identity of the authors fearful of retaliation.”

One of the women who will certainly contribute to Dropped Futures is Dr. Galina Okouneva. Okouneva originally received her Ph.D in 1987 from Russia’s prestigious Moscow State University. Upon immigrating to Canada, she worked as a researcher for NEPTEC Design Group, a private-sector Ottawa firm that is a prime contractor to NASA. She was engaged in producing a state-of-the-art computer vision system, used on the International Space Station.

Coming to Ryerson, she continued to work with computer vision systems, but in a more theoretical way. She is currently the only Canadian academic sitting on a US National Institute for Standards and Technology Task Group devoted to setting the standards for validating the capabilities of commercial computer vision systems.

Despite her $400,00 INSERC grant, when Dr. M. Lachemi assessed Okouneva’s research track record, he was overwhelmingly negative. In his tenure denial letter, he stated: “…your lack of publications in peer reviewed journals… does not demonstrate a capacity for, and commitment to, SRC [Scholarly Research and Creativity].”

At that time, Okouneva had seven published scientific articles, and one article that had been accepted and in line for publication. She points out that, when Dr. Jason Lassaline, a colleague in her department, was granted tenure just one year ago, he had only half her number of published papers. Furthermore, another colleague, Dr. John Enright, had only one published paper at the time of his positive tenure evaluation.

“Why,” she asks,  “was the number of my papers deemed to be low?”

When asked to comment upon the reasons why he denied Okouneva tenure, Dr. Lachemi passed on all questions to Dr. John Isbister, Ryerson’s Vice-Provost of Faculty Affairs. Isbister responded: “You are asking about a personnel matter on which the University is not permitted to make public comments.” Last May, when news of Okouneva’s impending dismissal spread, almost 200 undergraduate engineering students quickly signed a petition in her support, in just three days.

Not long ago, the Ryerson administration offered Okouneva a settlement worth roughly $150,000. “That settlement was contingent upon my agreeing not to discuss publicly my case and/or the issue of gender discrimination at Ryerson,” Okouneva says. “So I refused it and opted to continue on with the arbitration process. I am hoping to be reinstated. If not, I will take my case to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. Having been raised in the repressive Soviet Union, human rights are very important to me.”

Okouneva will, however, have to work hard to prove her case. “Preliminary analysis of recent decisions suggests that Tribunals do not fully understand the particular nature, organization and evaluation of academic work,” says Dr. Agnes Whitfield, “and that this impacts negatively on decisions with respect to women’s complaints.”

Whitfield is a Professor of English of English at Toronto’s York University and the President of the Academic Women for Justice/Femme universitaire pour la justice, a non-profit, self-funded association whose goal is “to ensure that all post-secondary educational institutions in Canada, in their regulations, procedures, and practices, respect Canada’s commitment under the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women.

“Despite legislation and measures to end discrimination, too many women working or studying in Canada continue to suffer unfair barriers to realising their full potential in the academic community.”

“The general public has traditionally not cared about what is going on in academia, since they often view that world as a cushy ‘ivory tower,’” Okouneva says. “However, the public should care, since academic institutions are funded with tax dollars.”

Dr. Monique Dubé

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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