How Athabasca grad Stefanie Ruel is using research to help create more opportunities for women in STEM

As a former senior mission manager for life sciences at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Stefanie Ruel took on high-level responsibilities, including her work as the increment payload manager for Chris Hadfield’s mission as commander of the international space station.

But, she noticed, she was often the only woman in the room.

“I was the only Canadian woman working as a life sciences mission manager in the Canadian space industry,” says Ruel, who recently won top international honours for her doctoral dissertation in 2018, from the Critical Management Studies division of the Academy of Management. Her topic: the exclusion of women from top positions involving science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in the aerospace industry.

In 2008, after 11 years with the CSA, Ruel considered the idea that a business education would help her advance in the industry. A colleague who was completing an undergraduate degree at Athabasca University (AU) recommended the distance learning institute.

“I looked into Athabasca and the more I learned, the more excited I got,” Ruel says. “I decided on an MBA because I felt it would give me more legitimacy in the aerospace industry and allow me to move into senior management.”

 

As I got deeper into my studies I began thinking less about myself and more about how I could make changes in the industry regarding opportunities for women in general

A Passion for Research

Ruel enrolled in Athabasca’s Masters of Business Administration program that same year. She completed the program in 2011, in a little over two years. Her research interests were focused on opportunities for women in STEM fields.

“As I got deeper into my studies I began thinking less about myself and more about how I could make changes in the industry regarding opportunities for women in general,” she says. “I had a wonderful thesis supervisor who encouraged me to do a doctorate and delve deeper into the demographics of STEM professional women.”

An email from the former director of the DBA program, Kay Devine, asking Ruel to apply helped make up her mind. She enrolled in 2012, focusing her studies on gender and diversity.

While assembling research for her dissertation, Ruel quietly resigned from the space agency in 2016. “I wanted to focus on my research, and I felt that I could make more of a difference to women who were aiming for management positions in STEM professions from outside the industry than within it,” she says.

The DBA program’s current director, Kai Lamertz, says he is thrilled at the news of Ruel’s award.

“I can’t overstate the significance of the award, not only personally for Stefanie but for AU as an institution,” he says. “The people making submissions to this organization are ivory tower and career academics who work full time at universities and are submitting work for PhD-type doctorates. There’s a perception that the DBA is somehow less significant than a PhD. To have won this competition at the premiere conference of its kind in the world demonstrates the excellence of both our students and our program.”

Ruel says the support she received at AU was instrumental in her success.

“There was no doubt that all the people at AU were interested both in my work and helping me to develop as a person,” she says. “The faculty was never more than a phone call away and we communicated regularly online in intense and detailed conversations. I never felt alone.”

That supportive atmosphere is part of a deliberate effort by AU to provide students with a sense of community.

“Athabasca University has renewed its approach to education by being more supportive of and directly involved with students,” says Lamertz. “The way we set up the DBA program captures the spirit of that approach, allowing students to tailor their work to their unique interests within the requirements of the program.”

Moving into Academia

New opportunities arose for Ruel out of the AU experience. While completing her DBA, she accepted faculty positions first at Mount Saint Vincent University and then at McGill. She successfully defended her dissertation, focused on intersectionality scholarship and its empirical application in the STEM space industrial context, in November 2017. She received her DBA in 2018.

Her doctoral thesis also provided the basis of a book, STEM professional Women’s Exclusion in the Canadian Space Industry, to be published by Emerald Publishing. She’s since accepted a position as assistant professor in management at Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business.

“When I set out in 2008 to earn my MBA this was not on my horizon,” says Ruel. “This experience allowed me to transform myself into an academic who is now publishing a book. The AU experience let me be me.”

This story was created by Peter Kenter of Content Works, Postmedia’s commercial content division, on behalf of Athabasca University.