Local women encourage science-based careers on North Island

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Published in the North Island Eagle, February 2018

By Trish Weatherall



Around the world, Feb. 11 was celebrated as the third International Day of Women in Science, adopted by UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) to promote full and equal access to and participation in science. UNESCO reports that science and gender equality are both vital for sustainable development. In Canada, a 2016 Maclean’s Magazine article reported that the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workforce in Canada in 1987 was 20 percent women, and almost 30 years later, had increased only 2 percent.


Two local leaders in their fields give their perspective as women working in science, and the opportunities in the North Vancouver Island region.


“There should be no gender bias to any job or profession,” said Jackie Hildering (aka The Marine Detective). The Port McNeill biologist, whale researcher, marine educator, and co-founder of the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS), raises awareness, appreciation, and positive action for the ocean and all life connected to it with her underwater photography, public information sessions, social media, and children’s books.


“It is simply insanity to suppress the skills, gifts and diversity that individuals could bring to a profession based on their gender, race or any other discrimination.”


As an example of the bias that still exists, in 2015 Noble laureate biochemist Tim Hunt said at a conference that labs should be gender-segregated because ‘…my trouble with girls… three things happen when they are in the lab…you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry’.


“Women responded with intelligence and humour,” says Hildering of the Twitter campaign launched by female scientists posting photos of themselves in biohazard suits, goggles, masks, and other protective gear, and labeled #distractinglysexy.


“I know that as ‘The Marine Detective’, there has been an assumption that I am a man. And the same assumption made about anyone who drives a boat,” she said. “Actually, in the marine mammal research field it’s predominantly women.”


“Something I find particularly entertaining is how often I am asked ‘Who takes these pictures?’ when I am standing directly beside them with a big ‘The Marine Detective’ sign. The presumption appears to be that these marine wildlife images could not have been taken by the middle-aged, grey-haired woman they are talking to. This provides me with even more motivation to keep at it and hopefully contribute to vanquishing such biases.”


And she believes local students, of both genders, have an advantage for careers in natural sciences.


“North Island youth may be particularly well positioned for professions in some of the STEM fields due to being raised in an area with so many natural resources. The future really needs those with a strong understanding of their place in nature who then apply technology and science to opportunities that are more sustainable economically and ecologically.”


Hildering is on the hiring committee for Stubbs Island Whale Watching which is currently hiring a Deckhand/Naturalist, and a Deckhand/Naturalist/Lead Conservation Communicator.



Port McNeill resident Megan Hanacek (known for her participation on the HISTORY Channel’s Alone survivalist TV program in 2017) is a local woman who has excelled in two science fields – biology and forestry. In her new role announced last week, she is the first woman to hold the position of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Private Forest Landowners Association (PFLA). In her role as CEO, she will be engaged in the responsible stewardship of B.C.’s private forest lands while balancing environmental values, community interests and economic realities.


Finding a balance between environment, First Nations rights and title, stakeholder interests and economics, requires strong foundational knowledge, broad operational experience and a strong communication skill set.


A Registered Professional Forester and a Registered Professional Biologist, Hanacek is equipped for the position through her previous experience as Forest Stewardship Specialist for the Association of B.C. Forest Professionals, and Managing Director, Board Director and Vice President of the Association of Professional Biology of B.C. Women in leadership and management STEM-related positions are still rare.


Hanacek says her university biology and chemistry classes had about 30 percent female students, and although today’s STEM classes are over 50 percent female, that hasn’t translated to the workforce.


“There’s a gap between the graduates and the number of females in these science fields, especially BC forestry where only ~15% of our 5300 registered forest professionals are women ,” she said. “Community and family support are really important. It can be difficult for women if you’re grappling with decisions about family or wanting to pursue higher education. I’m extremely grateful in the support I have here.”


Hanacek thinks women have many skills they can bring to science-based professions in the area.

“Women are great at communication, multi-tasking, and thinking holistically. These strong skills are needed in forestry and biology, where they are working with different users with diverse needs. I whole hearted believe women are a natural fit.”


With a 10-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son, Hanacek is a role model to both genders, and says science is fun and easy in this area.


“Daily, my kids are exposed to the interplay of nature, science and resource development.  BC is the most biodiverse area of North America, and natural resource development drives the economic activity to provide strong societal needs for medical, education, infrastructure and transportation systems. It’s an extremely interesting and dynamic field. When we go for walks in the local woods or on their grandparents’ whale watching tours, it’s an excellent opportunity to show them how science interplays with economics and local communities.”


Hanacek also encourages local careers in STEM fields and says forestry has huge potential for jobs, “That’s the beauty of forestry, it is a sustainable resource. Last month the Association of BC Forest Professionals job listings were the highest we’ve seen. There is huge attrition in the industry, and the demographics show that about 60 percent of forestry professionals are over 40.”


Both Hanacek and Hildering salute and support the many female leaders currently in fisheries, forestry, math, and biology in the North Vancouver Island region, who make the most of the accessible natural environment and contribute to its sustainability and are optimistic for the future of young science enthusiasts.


Hildering sums up, “Society will truly move forward by leaps and bounds when we perceive each other as individuals, not as a gender, race, or age.”