Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Around the Arctic December 09, 2016 - 3:10 pm

Sexist remarks at research gala shock and disturb northern scientists

“They were sexist, disgraceful comments about women. I couldn’t believe what I was listening to"

Martin Fortier, outgoing executive director of ArcticNet. (NETWORKS OF CENTRES OF EXCELLENCE CANADA WEBSITE)
Martin Fortier, outgoing executive director of ArcticNet. (NETWORKS OF CENTRES OF EXCELLENCE CANADA WEBSITE)

Sexist, inappropriate comments made during an ArcticNet gala celebration in Winnipeg Dec. 7 has prompted two open letters denouncing the speech and a call for ArcticNet’s board of directors to address long-standing issues of sexism in the organization, and in northern research.

ArcticNet, an elite network of publicly funded researchers and academics across the country who work in all manner of natural, human health and social sciences, is holding its annual meeting in Winnipeg this week to showcase work being done by veterans in the field as well as up-and-coming young researchers.

It’s those young students who were particularly offended when Russell Shearer took the podium at the gala to recognize outgoing executive director Martin Fortier for his long service to ArcticNet.

According to Natalie Baird, who wrote an open letter to ArcticNet that is signed by several dozen students and other ArcticNet supporters, Shearer made a “locker room” type speech about his colleague and friend Fortier.

Dr. Frank Tester, also in the audience Dec. 7, said Shearer told inappropriate stories about Fortier and described one this way:

“One time Martin was getting his meal and he made a mistake, he wound up at the vegetarian table with all the women. He thought he’d ask them what they thought of the food. So he sampled the women! Ha ha ha. Oh that’s a Trump-ism,” said Tester, on the phone from Winnipeg.

Shearer is listed on ArcticNet’s website as director of the research management committee. He also works for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

Baird, who was sitting with other student researchers at the Dec. 7 event, said in the open letter everyone was “stunned and offended” by Shearer’s remarks.

“This comment was said by the former Executive Director of ArcticNet, and then repeated. It was presented as entertainment, and celebrated at the 2016 ArcticNet Gala. This is extremely troubling,” reads the letter.

“It horrifies us to imagine what else is being said of female researchers and other marginalized peoples ‘off the podium,’ and reflects the levels of institutionalized sexism that exist within the Arctic research community.”

Baird, a Master of Environment student at the University of Manitoba, said on the phone from Winnipeg one of her colleagues approached an ArcticNet board member the next day to suggest they make a public apology before the morning’s plenary session.

But, Baird said, her concerns were dismissed.

The apology eventually came, 24 hours later, at an ArcticNet event to celebrate Women in Arctic Science on Dec. 8.

According to reports, ArcticNet’s executive director Leah Braithwaite apologized on behalf of the board and acknowledged the comments were inappropriate. She then took the opportunity to showcase what ArcticNet is doing to promote women in science.

The proof will be in the pudding, said Tester, a respected social scientist from the University of British Columbia and an ArcticNet researcher who signed the students’ open letter.

Tester was so offended by Shearer’s comments that he and two colleagues walked out of the event. He’s disappointed others didn’t follow, but suspects people are worried about their careers and didn’t want to make waves.

“They were sexist, disgraceful comments about women. I couldn’t believe what I was listening to. Good grief, what’s going on here? Really inappropriate,” Tester said.

“I don’t know directly, but I understand [Shearer] was challenged afterward and he was, like, what’s the problem? He’s not very conscious, obviously.”

Dr. Daniel Gillis, a University of Guelph scientist who tweeted to ArcticNet, “I don’t stand with your overtly misogynistic speeches” also wrote an open letter about Shearer’s speech.

“As academics and as mentors, it is our responsibility to set the example by which our students should strive. It is our responsibility to provide a safe space for the exchange and debate of ideas,” he wrote.

“I do not accept that this was a joke. I do not accept that this was a mistake. I believe this was misogyny, plain and simple.”

Baird said she and other letter signatories talked about the possibility of professional repercussions for denouncing the Arctic research establishment. But in the end, it was too important to ignore.

“I’m new to this community. This is my first ArcticNet,” she said.

“While I don’t necessarily understand the whole context into which I am sending this letter on behalf of a bunch of us… If I’m going to lose an opportunity because of what I’m saying, and what I’m standing up for, then maybe that’s for the best. Maybe I don’t want to be working for these people.”

Tester said he spoke to numerous women at the conference about how hurt they were by the remarks.

“They were stunned. Some of them were in tears. I met with a few who were really upset. They didn’t know what to do,” Tester said. Many confided that the attitude is not unusual. They described being undermined and harassed in the field by men or the “too-long-hug” and pat on the behind when men offer congratulations, Tester said.

“They said we put up with a lot in the North and I don’t have any trouble believing that. I’ve seen some of it.”

Tester said some of the best and brightest young researchers currently in the field of Arctic research are women.

If ArcticNet wants to encourage them to continue their work, they must stop alienating them with sexism and inequality, and bring them into positions of power and decision-making on the board of directors, he said.

Of the 13 people currently listed on ArcticNet’s board, 10 are men and three are women.

The students’ open letter singles out another presentation Baird thought was inappropriate in which a speaker made comments “referencing measuring male genitalia” and used a photo of men displaying “inappropriate and sexually explicit hand gestures.”

“The trivialization of these behaviours at a professional event illustrates the deeply embedded sexist culture that exists within this field and this organization,” the letter states.

It’s particularly troubling, Baird said over the phone, in light of the recent focus on ethics in Arctic research—how scientists owe a duty of respect to the northerners they work with.

Tester agreed. He wondered how Inuit and other northern women in the audience felt when they heard Shearer’s speech—many of whom were the guests of southern researchers. Imagine their hosts trying to reassure them that scientists are in fact ethical and respectful, he said.

In fact, Tester said, ArcticNet ought to consider drafting an ethics policy to guide research behaviour. And while they’re at it, a policy on gender equality or sexual harassment might also be in order.

We contacted Leah Braithwaite for this story but she did not get back to us by our publication time.

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