The following article appeared as an op-ed in ipolitics on March 8,2016.
Today, we celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Thankfully, there are many reasons for applause. International Women’s Day also serves as a call to action to continue advancing equality for women in areas where they remain critically underrepresented. One of those areas is STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – where women represent 25 per cent of the workforce.
STEM is vital for a prosperous knowledge economy. This we know. And the number of career opportunities in STEM is climbing fast. Look at the growing possibilities in the ever increasing field of computer science. But when that dial is stuck at 25 per cent – up only by a few percentage points from 30 years ago our STEM and innovation capacity, as a country, is limited.
By undervaluing the importance of gender parity in STEM, we are capping our ability to be more competitive on the global stage. We simply can’t afford to sit at 25 percent.
In order to achieve gender parity in STEM fields and truly prosper from the critical perspective of half of our population, Canadians – specifically employers, parents, educators and government – must understand both the opportunity cost of not achieving parity and the reasons why women’s participation is not climbing with the growth in STEM fields. It requires us to start at the beginning, looking at the early experiences of girls.
Despite the prevailing argument that the low participation rate of women in STEM is due to “lack of interest”, the more accurate assessment is that girls still face huge barriers when it comes to pursuing interest in STEM.
Girls, like boys, are naturally drawn to science. At a young age, girls want to be engineers, scientists, and innovators. And, yet, while they are looking under every rock for science in their own backyard, they still have one eye on the images around them that portray long-held societal beliefs about women’s role. Parents can also inadvertently discourage their daughters in these fields through subtle but consistent messaging because of their own discomfort with science and technology. Stereotypes tend to stick with these girls and even grow stronger as they age. By high school it is often too late to turn girls back on to the opportunities in STEM.
This issue becomes more critical when we look at computer science and digital skills where girls risk being left behind again. Parents today are extremely concerned about online safety, especially for girls. Unless the parents are digitally literate enough to teach their daughters about online safety, they choose to limit screen time. This is a huge missed opportunity for girls to be building essential digital literacy. This doesn’t only shut girls out of computer science jobs but out of most of the future workforce, all of which will require digital literacy skills.
To progress and move towards gender parity in STEM, and break that cycle, girls need to feel connected and confident. They need to know what success feels like in STEM. They need as many opportunities as possible to build, design, and play with science and technology. They need to have opportunities to fail and learn to embrace failure as a necessary part of innovation. And, they need female role models who can push the stereotypes aside, look that girl in the eye, inspire them to keep going, and help them change their view of “who does STEM.”
Many of the barriers girls and women face in STEM can be broken down through positive action. This means engaging girls in STEM early and often through as many channels as possible. It will take an attitudinal shift among parents, educators, and employers. It also requires Canada’s provincial and federal governments to apply a critical lens on the barriers that girls and women face in STEM and allocate funds to provide more out-of-school programs and opportunities for girls and women to experience STEM.
Understanding that a diverse STEM workforce will contribute to a more prosperous knowledge economy and have great societal impacts in Canada, we must do our part to help achieve gender parity. This means encouraging girls, whether it’s your daughter, student, cousin, niece, or neighbour, to get involved in STEM activities whenever there’s an opportunity so that they, too, can play a critical role in society and become Canada’s next great innovator.
On International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate all the progress we have made while remembering that gender parity in STEM benefits all Canadians.