WICTO creating important opportunities for women in science

March 15, 2018 by Dan Haves

Women in Chemistry Toronto (WICTO) is a student-led initiative that advocates for women in science and provides a network for women to meet and learn from each other. The group, which launched in 2014, also creates professional development opportunities for women in the Department of Chemistry. Most recently, they led a workshop on resilience with U of T’s Lil Blume, and they’ve also started a mentorship program for undergraduate students. We spoke with WICTO Chair Anika Tarasewicz and Seminar Series Coordinator Nimrat Obhi about some of the work they’re doing to better prepare women for a life in science.

Tell me a little bit about the WICTO workshop you had earlier this month

Anika Tarasewicz: WICTO hosts a yearly Professional Development Workshop to provide career building and networking opportunities for the chemistry community. This year we decided that we wanted the workshop to have a focus on resilience. Many women and minorities tend to become discouraged from pursuing careers in scientific fields because they fear that anything short of perfection will lead to failure. Therefore, we organized this workshop so that participants will be able to build upon the existing sources of resilience when difficulties and setbacks occur.

The event was facilitated by Lil Blume who teaches in the Computer Science Department at the University of Toronto and specializes in teaching communication skills critical to women in science. The workshop was designed to be engaging – there was time for personal reflection, group discussion, and improv exercises for the thirty participants who registered. Lil was able to create a safe and inclusive space for people to speak freely. Many people discovered during the workshop that they have been resilient in the past, and that they will now view their failures as challenge with learning opportunities. 

You’ve recently started a mentorship program. How did this program come about?

Nimrat Obhi: We were interested in facilitating outreach between WICTO and individuals outside the graduate student community, since a part of the 'leaky pipeline' phenomenon is thought to be caused by a lack of diverse role models for younger individuals.  In 2016, WICTO was lucky enough to collaborate with the Chemical Institute of Canada Toronto Chapter (CICTor) to set up a mentorship program between graduate students and undergraduates in Toronto.  

The goal of the program is not to persuade undergraduate students to go into chemistry, but more so to facilitate meaningful and productive connections between STEM undergraduate and graduate students in order to create impactful leaders in both academia and society in general.

The feedback for the CICTor/WICTO Mentorship Program so far has been very positive, which is promising for its continuation!  We want in future to expand this program beyond U of T, which we hope will have a greater impact on retention of diverse individuals in the STEM community in Toronto.

What are some of things you have learned since joining WICTO? 

AT: Before joining WICTO, I knew that there was a big gap in gender parity for the science, engineering, technology, and mathematics fields. However, it was only once I joined WICTO that I have become educated on the statistics, what causes the leaky pipeline, and policy efforts for gender equity. WICTO started a journal club in order be informed with the current literature. This allows us to have more productive conversations during meetings and plan more constructive events for creating a diverse and inclusive space. 

Throughout my experience during WICTO, I have been extremely fortunate to work with such amazing people. The graduate students who volunteer their limited time with WICTO are outstandingly committed to bring diversity, inclusivity, and equity to the chemical sciences. I really enjoy working on events and activities with these people, and seeing the direct impact at the Department of Chemistry.

What else should people know about the activities at WICTO?

NO: In addition to all our mentorship, outreach, professional development, and other events we mentioned above, we have recently been liaising with the Department for a few other initiatives which hopefully we can talk more about soon!

It is very important for us to say that we welcome anyone and everyone to all of our events!  We are always looking for diversity of thought, and for feedback on our initiatives.  Please visit our website, and follow us on social media if you would like to know more about our goals and events, and always feel free to contact any of the members with any questions or suggestions you may have.  We also welcome anyone at our biweekly meetings, so please email us if you are interested in attending!