We Reap What We Sow: The Importance Of Supporting Girls And Women In STEM

Ishita Aggarwal is YWCA Toronto’s 2017 Young Woman of Distinction. Ishita has been encouraging girls’ participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs since she started Science4Girls – a high school club – where she encouraged girls’ to learn about the work of prominent women scientists. She was instrumental in the creation of the first national Women In Science and Engineering (WISE) conference at the University of Toronto and in 2015, launched BEHIND-THE-SCENES, a global e-zine that identifies women’s experiences of gender-based prejudice and discrimination.

Ishita Aggarwal is YWCA Toronto’s 2017 Young Woman of Distinction.

When I was in Grade 4, my group of friends would role-play during recess. Restaurateur, scientist, police officer, president – we spent 15 minutes of every day exploring potential futures together. Few rules governed our game, save for an unspoken one – the leading role, be it of lawyer, engineer, doctor, or astronaut, would always be played by one of the boys. None of us ever questioned why – that was just the way it was and no one told us otherwise. Unfortunately, not much has changed since then.

While it is true that Canadian girls and women have made significant progress in education and labour force participation, they continue to be underrepresented in occupations in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). According to the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS), only one-third of graduates in STEM fields are women, a figure that is made even more discouraging when compared to the ratio of women who graduate in other fields (66%) [1].

Given the low number of girls and women looking to enroll in STEM programs, it is not surprising that the number of women working in STEM is significantly lower than the number of women working in other occupations. Moreover, women who do manage to find work in natural and/or applied sciences often face a plethora of political roadblocks (maternal wall, isolation, stereotype threat, cultural beliefs of male superiority, etc.), making it more difficult for them to earn full-time faculty positions, gain leadership roles, and/or win awards or grants in recognition of their body of work.

But why does any of this matter? What do we have to gain by supporting girls and women in STEM (and just as importantly, what do we have to lose by discouraging them)? Firstly, women make up half of the world’s population, and hence represent the single largest under-used workforce. Empowering young girls and women in their pursuit of careers in STEM is more likely to maximize creativity, innovation, and competitiveness in the fields of natural and/or applied sciences. Moreover, studies have found that higher levels of diversity in workplaces, regardless of field, contribute to more successful solutions to complex problems [2]. It can thus be surmised that encouraging female participation in STEM will increase our chances of solving some of the most daunting challenges of our time (e.g. poverty and employment and economic disparity, climate change and natural resource security, war and terrorism, food waste, human overpopulation, etc.).

Secondly, it is crucial that we accelerate the race towards gender equity in STEM to prevent further proliferation of male – centric science. We would do well to remember that, for decades, animal models used to test the design and effectiveness of new drugs and medications were male. Failing to account for the physiological effects of sex in biomedical testing resulted in countless premature female deaths [3]. It was not until women themselves became involved in biological and medical research that policies on medication changed. When women are excluded from technical decisions that ultimately impact them, their unique experiences, needs, and desires are overlooked.

Finally, we must consider how our actions and priorities appear to those around us, particularly our children. By allowing the gender gap in STEM to persist, we rob young girls (and boys) of strong female role models, perpetuating a belief in old-fashioned gender roles and stereotypes. How can we continue to tell the next generation, “You can be whatever you want,” if we do not strive to create a world where that is indeed possible?

We like to think that, as a society, we have made advancements towards achieving equal opportunities, yet rules of children’s playground games have remained the same over decades. If nine-year-olds can intuitively interpret the gender gap in STEM, why do we insist on closing our eyes and convincing ourselves that our situation is not as dire as it is? Perhaps it is because confronting the truth requires us to examine our own shortcomings, the very ones we wish to push to the deepest corners of our psyche. As we continue forward, we would earnestly benefit from visiting and revisiting the words of legendary novelist Ayn Rand – “You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.”

References

[1] Dominique Dionne-Simard, Diane Galarneau & Sebastien LaRochelle-Cote. “Insights on Canadian Society: Women in Scientific Occupations in Canada.” Statistics Canada, 24 June 2016. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-006-x/2016001/article/14643-eng.htm

[2] Katherine W. Phillips. “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter.” Scientific American, 1 October 2014. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-diversity-makes-us-smarter/

[3] Meera Kaul. “Why We Need More Women in STEM.” Entrepreneur India, 29 February 2016. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/271665