Doina Oncel, Melissa Sariffodeen, Christine Allen, Dr. Gelareh Zadeh and Catherine Wang
(L to R): Doina Oncel, Melissa Sariffodeen, Christine Allen, Dr. Gelareh Zadeh and Catherine Wang discuss strategies to close the gap for women in STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. (Photo: UHN)

Being a woman and juggling roles as a​ professional, a parent, a child, a spouse is not a new dilemma. What may be new is an increased awareness that historically we have always thought of this a lot more as a woman's problem than as a man's.

"Why are certain things so ingrained in our culture and society about what a woman's role should be?," asked Dr. Gelareh Zadeh, UHN's Head of Surgical Oncology, neurosurgeon-scientist at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and Program Medical Director for Krembil Neuroscience Centre at Toronto Western Hospital as she participated in a panel about closing the gap for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

The event was hosted by JLABS, Johnson & Johnson's innovation incubator, and co-presented by UHN on International Women's Day last week. Along Dr. Zadeh, the panel included Christine Allen, Drug Delivery and Cancer Researcher at University of Toronto, Doina Oncel, CEO of hEr Volution, and Melissa Sariffodeen, CEO and Co-Founder of Canada Learning Code. The discussion was moderated by Catherine Wang, VP of Clinical Operations and Diagnostic Partnerships at UHN.

While gender stereotypes are still common, Dr. Zadeh and the other panellists discussed how there is a growing understanding that we shouldn't use different rulers to measure how women and men balance career and personal life. But changing this perception can be especially hard in careers that demand long hours and a lifetime of dedication.

All successful women in leadership roles in STEM, the panellists shared their struggles in coordinating their careers with motherhood. Most importantly, they told their stories on how to fight stigma and be able to really share responsibilities with their partners.

Dr. Zadeh, for example, said she never had the time to prepare her daughter's lunch box – something often expected of a mother. However, she has built an open and solid relationship with her daughter, something she wouldn't trade for anything in the world.

"Do I make mistakes? Absolutely," Dr. Zadeh said. "Am I perfect? No. I'm never going to be that perfect mom who participates in all school activities, but my relationship with my daughter is completely solid and I wouldn't change it. I'm really happy that she's in my life.

"And it goes back to my main point. How do we know if we are good mothers? We use metrics defined historically and culturally by our society. But these metrics don't make sense to me. I should use metrics that fit my life and, as a consequence, I can deliver on them."

Dr. Zadeh and Catherine Wang
Dr. Zadeh and Catherine Wang talk about how women in STEM juggle personal and professional life. “I’m never going to be that perfect mom who participates in all school activities, but my relationship with my daughter is completely solid and I wouldn’t change it,” Dr. Zadeh said. (Photo: UHN)

'Me too' movement and its impact for women in STEM

Although Hollywood is quite a distant world for women in STEM, the panellists said the main impact of the "Me too" and "Time's up" movements are in raising awareness to gender discrimination in the workplace.

Dr. Zadeh said she is very proud that at UHN women are in senior management positions and in research leadership roles, but that medicine and especially her field – neurosurgery – are still very much dominated by men.

For her, to involve men as well as women in ending gender disparity is key to having more females opting for a career in STEM.

"It is our responsibility as a society to make sure that our men are also equally involved and fully understand what the issue is," she said. "We assume that men are deliberate on this process (of excluding women), but I would argue it is not the case.

"There is a much bigger role that men can play and I think they are willing to play it. We need to work together to make it happen, to move towards real change."

As the panel's moderator, Catherine Wang said it is very important for UHN to participate in events such as this. She pointed out the institution is very engaged in promoting gender equality.

"Being a woman and a leader at UHN, I'm so proud to be a part of this event and hear impactful women in STEM share their powerful experiences," she said.

"While I think UHN is far ahead of most other Canadian hospitals, there are still opportunities for us to improve on gender equality. The pace of progress is tremendous right now and we need to see this continue."​

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