Removing barriers for women in STEM
Earlier this year, Dr. Stefanie Ruel was presenting at a conference and asked the question, “Have you ever been harassed?”
Three-quarters of the women in the room raised their hands.
She was not particularly surprised by this answer. As a former manager with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), she knows there are significant obstacles for women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields.
Ruel didn’t always realize it was, in part, her gender that was holding her back. She didn’t come to that conclusion until she had finished her MBA and DBA with Athabasca University, and credits those programs with helping to achieve her full potential.
“They have a wonderful program, the way it’s set up. It really helps the individual to develop their potential, and that’s really important,” she said. “I reached my potential, and somebody else’s potential is very different from mine, but AU is structured in such a way as to make that happen, which is fantastic.”
Now an assistant professor with the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Ruel focuses her academic work on gender, diversity, and inclusion, especially in the context of STEM industries.
“I have found a lot of these organizations haven’t taken the time to find out what the problem is in the first place,” she said. “My research looks to shine a light on the problem first, before we even start talking about policy, training, procedure, and rules.”
Her recently published book, STEM-professional women’s exclusion in the Canadian space industry, is an empirical study of STEM-professional women and men who work across the Canadian space industry. Her book is not about her experiences specifically, but she is part of the process in revealing the day-to-day interactions that marginalize.
Ruel’s career began with a bachelor of science at McGill University, where she majored in mathematics. After some time working in the nuclear industry looking at how the human body reacts to radiation, an opportunity came up for work at the CSA as a “data cruncher.”
She quickly proved her value, and was soon leading teams of her own, working on a variety of projects like using the RADARSAT satellite to image the Earth’s surface, including doing the first complete Antarctic mapping mission and imaging all of Canada in seven days. The result of the latter work can now be found on the back of the Canadian $100 bill.
Despite many successes in leadership positions, Ruel found she had hit a wall and was no longer being promoted. At that point, she still hadn’t made the connection between her gender and her lack of advancement.
“I just thought it was really odd that I was the only woman at the table in meetings. I was the only woman to lead mission teams. I was the only woman to be the head of mission planning for the radar satellite,” she said. “There was something, but it wasn’t concrete for me at that point.”
Like many others who want to enhance their skills and move into higher-level management positions, Ruel decided to pursue an MBA. She did worry about how she would fit the demands of being a full-time student into her already-packed schedule.
“I knew there was just no way I could be stuck in a bricks-and-mortar classroom, trying to fit my schedule into somebody else’s schedule,” she said. “I knew it just wouldn’t work.”
A coworker at the time was completing her undergraduate degree with AU and spoke so highly of her experiences that Ruel decided to look into it for herself. It didn’t take long before she had registered for the MBA program and found AU offered her the flexibility to fit all her coursework in to her busy life.
What’s more, her instructors at AU helped her look at her situation at the CSA and provided her the tools to reach her own conclusion—she was in fact working in a discriminatory environment.
She continued to explore this topic through the DBA program and was able to focus in on it in no small part because AU provided her with many options of who she could work with, rather than limiting her to only AU faculty.
“A lot of PhD students have to find someone who’s doing research they’re interested in, at the institution they’re registered at,” Ruel said. “The beauty of the DBA program at AU is you’re not limited to just the people at AU. You can go globally if you want.”
She found the right combination of researchers to form her committee, and got to work on her dissertation, which focused on the lack of STEM-professional women in management positions in the Canadian space industry.
Academic work after the CSA
Ruel’s research, which was based on interviews with men and women working in the industry, produced some illuminating results about the overall culture within this field in Canada.
“The way we talk to each other in this industry is shocking. I’ll put it that way. For example, one of the late career STEM-professional women that I interviewed was called ‘a dog that needed to be kept on a leash,’” she said. “This is someone who had over 15 years of experience in the industry and she was being treated like a dog.”
The people she interviewed, whether men or women, had internalized some of the narratives they were exposed to on a day-to-day basis. Ruel saw it in her own professional life through interactions with her peers, as well. At one point in a contentious meeting with a colleague, when they couldn’t come to a consensus, one man challenged her to an arm wrestle to reach a decision.
“When you take that apart as an academic, on one hand he saw me as an equal to him, a fellow man, but the reality is he knew he could beat me physically. There’s no way I could win that arm wrestle,” Ruel said. “I started picking up on all these little things that were helping to position me below other people, and I couldn’t play the game anymore, so I quietly resigned. I gave my two weeks’ notice and I walked out.”
Ruel has now moved on to an academic position and continues her research. While reactions to her research have been mixed—women in STEM fields generally appreciate the work, while some of her former colleagues at the CSA are less receptive.
Regardless, she is not dissuaded and continues to champion women’s roles in STEM fields. Currently, she’s working with colleagues to highlight the experiences of the women who worked on the Alouette satellite missions—women who are hidden in the histories of Canada’s role in the Cold War.
“We’re looking at space, but we’re also looking at the STEM male-dominated industries across Canada, and how to change the landscape so the things that happened to me, and the things that happened to other women in STEM fields, don’t get perpetuated,” Ruel said.
In 2019, Ruel and two of her colleagues were awarded the Canadian Federation of Business School Deans Grant. Their research will focus on “Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity at the Intersection of STEM and Business Management in Canadian Higher Education.” It’s the first of its kind in Canada and we are proud that Ruel is an alumna!