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Promoting women in STEM from an early age

National campaign encourages young women to #ChooseScience
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February 11 marked the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, established by the United Nations “to achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, and further achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.”

To celebrate this, the Government of Canada launched a national campaign to encourage young women to enter science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan announced the initiative at an exclusive event held at Facebook Canada’s headquarters, using the hashtag #ChooseScience on social media to spread the word.

20 girls from the U of T Engineering Outreach Program were among those invited to join Canada’s leaders, scientists, engineers, and educators in a discussion about women and girls in STEM. The panel, hosted by Erica Ehm, founder of the Yummy Mummy Club and former Much Music VJ, was broadcast via Facebook Live. Duncan sat alongside Maryam Monsef, the Minister of Status of Women; Jennifer Flanagan, the CEO of Actua; Amanda Mason of Oculus, a virtual reality company owned by Facebook; and Dr. Angela Schoellig, a professor at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies.

“A career in science is an adventure,” said Duncan, recounting the Arctic expedition she led to investigate the of cause of the 1918 Spanish Flu. However, she had not always cherished a passion for science. Having spent her childhood studying the arts, Duncan only discovered her passion for the field upon entering university. “[Science] can open up new doors, take you to faraway places, and helps you change the world one discovery at a time.”

Science has left an impression on Monsef in a markedly personal way. “As a Canadian woman, I’m so grateful to be alive at this moment in our history because it hasn’t always been like this,” she said.

Monsef opened up about her mother’s efforts to study medicine, and how that dream was suddenly taken away in the heat of war. “In this room right now, there is a lot of privilege, there is a lot of opportunity, there are really big dreams, and the world is rooting for you to achieve those dreams.”

Flanagan, who works in science communication, helps people understand why science matters, how it impacts their lives, and what the opportunities are in the field. “Science has been the vehicle for me to combine all of my passions,” she said. It has allowed her to bring together her love for teaching, social justice, and business.

Science has likewise allowed Mason to unite her past and present passions. “I am curious about the world… I’ve been that way since I was a little kid,” she said, as she recalled her childhood interest in working with dinosaurs. Mason and her team are now developing a product that allows her to do just that. With an Oculus Rift headset on site, audience members, too, had a chance to come face-to-face with a dinosaur in virtual reality.

Schoellig is a robotics engineer who believes that the collaborative and creative aspects of research are often overlooked. “I think it’s underestimated, what we can do,” said Schoellig, sitting beside an early prototype of the aerial robot she designed to detect algae in bodies of water, “It’s just amazing to me how you can use math and programming to design a robot that actually moves and interacts with the world.”

This panel of successful women in science not only demonstrated the diversity of paths that science offers, but also encouraged open conversations about the struggles women and girls in STEM continue to face today.

Women account for 55 per cent of U of T’s undergraduate student body. These numbers are fewer when it comes to some STEM disciplines. For engineering, only 25 per cent of the undergraduate students are women.

In the United Kingdom, women make up 49 per cent of people with a PhD in science. In the United States, that drops to 46 per cent. In Canada, it is 32 per cent.

“We need women’s views, we need their perspectives, we need their insights, and I’ve been clear that when we don’t include women, it can have real consequences,” said Duncan.

An example of these consequences can be seen in the airbags of cars, designed by engineers who were largely men. Airbag prototypes were made to fit men’s bodies and were not well-suited for women and children. Similarly, the first voice detection software had only calibrated to men’s voices.

Unfortunately, this is a persisting problem that extends beyond everyday inconveniences. “Gender parity isn’t just for gender parity’s sake,” said Flanagan. There is a scientific imperative for research to account for the half of the population that does not have a Y chromosome; there is an economic imperative to meet the growing demand for labour in the workforce; and there is a social imperative to curb the overrepresentation of women in underpaid, unemployed, and single-parent populations.

Mason attributed this gender imbalance in science to the subtle messages that young girls receive. “I think science is about failure. You have to fail to create something new,” she said. “Part of the reason there are so few girls [in STEM]… is that when we fail we’re taught to be ashamed of it and it’s not okay to fail, whereas boys are encouraged… to try again.”

However, the reality is that STEM fields are highly competitive environments where students often cannot risk compromising grades. Flanagan acknowledged the challenge of finding such “experiential learning programs where the risk-taking and failure is an option,” which often must be actively sought out.

“It’s a simple problem to solve in that we just need to encourage [girls] more. But it’s very difficult because it’s so pervasive in our society to inherently not do that,” said Flanagan.

Among undergraduate students, the proportion of women in engineering is half the proportion of women studying life sciences. Many believe this to be due to the lack of role models in the field. “The textbooks… mostly [had] images of people who didn’t look like me, who didn’t have my background, that I had a hard time relating with, though I admired them so much,” recalled Monsef.

“And that’s why engineering has been challenging, because there’s so few women, and then that kind of perpetuates itself,” said Flanagan. “Many kids haven’t met a lot of engineers, let alone a woman engineer.” The knowledge that children hold about the field often stems from the media, whose depictions of engineering may amplify existing stereotypes and misconceptions, and play a role in turning girls away.

Of the women who enter STEM fields, the challenge to remain in them manifests itself in a phenomenon known as the leaky pipeline: women become an increasingly prominent minority as they climb the career ladder.

The perceived incompatibility between familial responsibilities and career ambitions is among the many causes of the under representation of women in STEM. As a woman enters her childbearing years, her decision to advance her career may be influenced by this apparent trade-off. “We have to stop pretending that having children is a disability for women,” said Mason.

“I think that’s the paradigm that we need to change,” agreed Flanagan. Women can and do engage in their work while balancing other priorities in their lives. “[Having children] does not take away from their success at work.”

The Government of Canada has implemented policies aimed at facilitating the challenge of this paradigm. Last September, the University and College Academic Staff Survey was reinstated to better understand the composition of the research community and monitor the progression of women through the science hierarchy so that faculty reflective of Canada’s diversity can be recruited.

New diversity requirements for Canada Research Chairs have also been set to better represent women.

At the community level, parents and teachers can support young women by challenging stereotypes. “If you think you have to be a certain way to go in a certain field of science, you are like everyone there. You will not make the biggest contribution,” cautioned Schoellig, “If you are different you’ll make the biggest contributions because you look at things differently, you ask different questions.”