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UBC Women in Chemistry aims to empower underrepresented groups throughout STEM

The newly-founded UBC Women in Chemistry group is seeking to build a supportive space for women in chemistry and STEM (sciences, technology, engineering and math).

"The goal of the group is just to create a supportive community where everybody feels safe and welcome, and the intention of that is to help promote the retention of minorities — mostly women — in chemistry at UBC in particular," said Dr. Carolyn Virca, a postdoctoral research fellow at UBC’s Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute. She is one of the group’s founding members, along with Rebecca Sherbo, Valerie Chiykowski and Maria Cleveland.

Founded in 2018, the group is mainly led by — and tailored towards — graduate students. At each monthly meeting, different planning members of the group host relevant workshops, helping to guide members through graduate school and their academic careers. Past workshops have covered topics like mentorship and sponsorship, and leadership as a woman in science.

The meetings provide networking opportunities with other academic professionals. The group also uses the space to relay external opportunities like scholarships or fellowships from organizations like the Canadian Women in Chemistry Network (CWIC) — of which it is a member — to group members.

The importance of creating this kind of supportive community for women in science is not new to Virca.

"The graduate school that I went to didn’t have a women in anything group … so we started one there too, which is why I knew, ‘OK, this is what we’ve got to do to keep us going here [at UBC]’," she explained. "I think what we really wanted was just that support and that community, and that space where we could, you know, network and provide opportunities for each other and celebrate each other, and just be really supportive."

Women in STEM face various obstacles such as skewed grant funding towards male project leads. "Even ridiculous things like not having a bathroom for your gender anywhere near where you work — that’s just like a subtle sign that you don’t belong there," Vica explained. She also talked about the "leaky pipeline," where women prematurely leave STEM fields in various stages of their career, resulting in increasingly fewer numbers of women at more advanced positions.

"Little things and big things like that really add up," Virca said," ... if you’re not the only one person that [it's] happening to and there’s a tribe of angry women right there with you, … it can really help you push through those obstacles because they’re there.”

Despite the challenges, Virca stressed the need to speak to these issues and inform everyone — not just women — about them.

"If those are subconscious biases that are held by people that are making these decisions right now [are present], that’s something that — although it's discouraging and it’s disappointing and it’s frustrating — we need to know [about] ... especially if we’re the people who are making these choices down the line."

While the group focuses on women, Virca emphasized that its membership is not limited to women alone. "Not even is it not exclusive [to women], but we really encourage men to come," Virca said. She believes men can benefit from listening to their women peers in STEM and learn about the issues affecting women in STEM fields.

The group plans to continue holding meetings in the coming months, putting on events like a career guidance workshop and potentially collaborating with other women in STEM clubs in the future. Establishing a formal mentorship program for graduate students and postgraduates is also a consideration for the future.

"Women are so good at talking and sharing and supporting and affirming each other," said Virca. "And this is just an official space for us to do that."