HeForShe co-ordinator responds to criticism

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It has been eight months since the University of Waterloo was invited by the United Nations to partake in its IMPACT 10x10x10 initiative by the HeForShe campaign. The HeForShe campaign invites men to be advocates of change for the achievement of gender equality and women’s rights, and has launched its IMPACT 10x10x10 pilot initiative which aims to create “systematic, structural change that will equalize the economic, social, and political realities for women and men … through top-down change, engaging global leaders across three sectors: government, the private sector, and academia” as stated on its website.

In light of this, UW constructed its three HeForShe commitments: boosting females’ participation in STEM experiences to build future leaders, enhancing female faculty representation to drive towards parity in the future, and advancing women into leadership positions within the university.

Now that the campaign is in the process of settling its events for the year, Imprint had the chance to sit with Diana Parry, adviser to UW President Feridun Hamdullahpur on gender equality issues, to discuss what they have planned. Imprint also had the chance to discuss some of the concerns the campaign has been garnering.

Each commitment includes a number of programs, initiatives, and pilot projects. This year consists of a Girls in Physics Day and an outreach program for Aboriginal girls.

Girls in Physics Day has a specific goal: spark female students’ interest in STEM fields before they start high school and begin opting out of classes like physics, which narrows down their options in terms of the programs they can pursue in their post-secondary education.

To achieve this, Girls in Physics Day was proposed, which will welcome seventh and eighth grade girls to the campus. They will have the opportunity to attend a keynote speech about the importance of physics as a course offering and to conduct experiments, including ones with crystals and light.

The event is set to pilot in Fall 2016, and will be free to ensure its accessibility to all students who are eligible to participate.

The  proposed program for Aboriginal girls, a similar project, aims to strengthen the partnership between UW’s faculty of engineering and Aboriginal communities. The program is led by a steering committee created by Parry, which involves the faculty of engineering and St. Paul’s Aboriginal Center. In August, UW will be hosting a camp for 10 girls and their caregivers. The camp will consist of a three-night stay, and will include a combination of Engineering Science Quest activities as well as cultural programming. Any groups on campus that may want to get involved are welcome to contact the leaders of St. Paul’s Aboriginal Centre.

The campaign consists of various other programs and initiatives, many of which are faculty-specific. Appointed faculty advocates aim to cater to gender equality needs in accordance with the culture of each faculty. Parry has spoken about teaming up with various groups such as the Women’s Center, the GLOW Centre, the UW Bookstore, and the athletics department for various gender equality initiatives.

However, that is not to say that the campaign hasn’t met any criticism.

One of the main criticisms of the campaign has to do with its constricting portrayal of the gender binary, which is seen to be trans-exclusionary. This concern has been echoed by members of FemPhys, the committee for women in physics at UW.

“The whole gendering business is pretty trans-exclusionary,” said Emma McKay, former chair of FemPhys.

Understanding this concern, Parry said she has been “working on using some of UW’s internal communication mechanisms, such as the UW homepage or Daily Bulletin, to recognize Intersex Day, Transgender Day, and Bisexual Day amongst others to help raise awareness.” She also reached out to UN Women to relay her concern.

This criticism has been addressed on the new HeForShe website, which now allows for females and any gender that falls on the gender spectrum to be a part of the campaign. This option had previously been open to males only. Parry further welcomes anyone who wishes to expand on this issue.

A second concern, more specific to UW, had been regarding the IMPACT scholarships which have been awarded to six outstanding female students pursuing a STEM program at UW. Sam Hirniak, of the FemPhys club, felt that recipients “were undervalued for comparable scholarships.”

“The big scholarship for males and females is the Schulich Leader Scholarship, a four-year scholarship worth $60,000-$80,000, whereas the [HeForShe IMPACT Scholarship] is only $12,000,” Hirniak said. “When I read the girls’ bios, I thought that they were way more qualified than people who were qualified for and got the Schulich Leader Scholarship. I felt like it was a really big undervaluing of women in STEM.”

Parry expressed that this was “interesting feedback and good for us to hear.” She stated that the aim of the scholarship was to “recognize the excellent students that we have here on campus and in STEM, and to attract other students to the University of Waterloo who may want to study STEM.” Parry clarified that the requirements are no stricter than any of the other scholarships and the exact same protocol as with other scholarships was followed, but she still plans to have a look at how the scholarship compares financially with others offered for STEM studies.

A third and enduring criticism — which is seen not only on campus but also across Canada and globally — is whether or not the campaign actually engages men in gender equality issues as it proposes.

Brief conversations with some of the men on campus indicated that many were either unaware or had minimal information about the campaign and its involvement with UW.

McKay shared this concern. Having said that she feels the university is lacking in this respect, she said that she would “really love for a huge number of people to become more educated, and that includes everyone. In particular with men, it would be great to provide spaces for men to discuss amongst themselves and with other people about feminism, about how to be supportive, how to be self-critical of their own behavior, and how to make the world a better place for themselves and for other people.”

Parry said that there exists a “distinction between the HeForShe campaign and the IMPACT 10x10x10. The HeForShe is a global initiative to bring men into the conversation for gender equality, and the IMPACT 10x10x10 initiative asked us to look at gender equality on our campus, and create initiatives and commitments that would address that gap. So we’re doing both.” Further to that, she is working to ensure there there is equal representation of women and men in the faculty advocates and steering committees. She is also in the process of working with Roly Webster, director of UW Athletics, in a proposal to profile two varsity teams and have them engaged in the campaign.

Prof. Trevor Holmes, a faculty member in the women’s studies department, further highlighted this issue of male involvement.

“I think that like on any campus in Canada, there will be at least three populations of men,” Holmes said.  “Existing supportive allies who were already doing things and will continue to, a big middle group of guys who think equality’s important but don’t necessarily believe problems apply to their immediate surroundings, and finally a few with antipathy toward women taking up space or having a voice. Whether we’re talking students, staff, or faculty, I suspect these three groupings hold true, and over time have always done.”

As for overcoming gender equality issues, Holmes is hopeful.

“The good news is that this willing but uncertain middle group I’m referring to is, in [2016], bigger than ever in my opinion, and is often totally open to initiatives if they are told about them and understand how they can help out.”

Parry expressed gratitude for all students who had reached out to her, and encourages others who wish to get involved to reach out to their faculty advisors, who have been hearing concerns and putting together events for gender equality issues. She is also happy to personally hear from students.