Environmental Science

Environmental Science professor notes necessary changes to remedy inclusivity in STEM

February 11, 2022
Photo credit: Amanda Wik

On this day of emphasizing full and equal access for women and girls in science, Chelsea Little, an assistant professor in SFU’s Schools of Environmental Science and Resource and Environmental Management shares her academic and career experiences and the changes she would like to see for future women in science.

From an early age Little was interested in everything from reading, foreign languages, English, and science. During her undergraduate degree she took the suggestion of a friend and applied to be a research assistant for an ecology professor. By the time she returned from a summer of assisting with fieldwork in the Rocky Mountains, she had made the decision to change her major to biology. 

Today, she leads her own research team, Little Ecology Group — a group of undergraduate and graduate students studying connections among ecosystems, with a special focus on the plants and animals moving between them.

“We prioritize inclusion, having fun, and learning from each other. This past fall we jointly developed a shared values statement that will guide how our group works together, and it was a really rewarding experience,” says Little.

Looking at the field of ecology, Little sees a lot of interest from young women to pursue this field, noting that women make up the majority of students in North American life sciences departments. Instead, she has seen larger gender disparity higher up in academia — a common trend among science disciplines.

“The problem is that women are pushed more and more out of the field as they climb through the career ranks. Most departments are still male-dominated at the faculty level, sometimes very heavily so, which does send a message about who should feel included,” says Little. “Ecology is a great case study because it shows that it’s really not a problem of young women not being interested or not getting involved in the field.... we should also work hard on making sure that these women can stay in the field if they want to.”

Where we do need to push for inclusion, Little suggests, is with young BIPOC women. “There are lots of intersectional barriers to inclusion in ecology,” says Little.

To start, Little suggests a few remedies to address inclusivity in the sciences, not just ecology, and make these fields more diverse and inviting:

“1) increase funding so that education and research in our field is a viable financial proposition for more people, 2) reduce bias in recruitment, hiring, promotion, awards, and invitation to collaborate on projects, and 3) to have stronger consequences for sexual harassment.”

More International Day of Women and Girls in Science features