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Foster a Gender-Equal STEM Sector in Canada: 3 Essential Steps

Female scientist inspecting vials of fluid
Female scientist inspecting vials of fluid
Photos courtesy of the Canadian Women's Foundation.
Andrea Gunraj

Andrea Gunraj

Vice President of Public Engagement, Canadian Women’s Foundation

The Canadian Women’s Foundation is striving to transform Canada’s STEM sectors by working to end gender stereotypes, build impactful mentorship opportunities, and set up workplaces for success to lead to more effective, and gender equal, STEM fields.

In Canada, women are now graduating from university in strong numbers. But in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), traditionally male-dominated sectors, women made up only 34% of bachelor’s degree holders. Only 23% of workers in science and technology between the ages of 25­–64 are women.

We need to take intentional action to open the doors to STEM for women and Two Spirit, trans, and non-binary people. We need to transform this field for gender equity because equity makes everyone’s work and lives better and builds sector innovation and effectiveness. Here’s three things we need to do to break the gender barriers in STEM.

Listicle 1

End gender stereotypes

Widespread stereotypes and biases affect us personally and collectively. They impact what we believe is possible and influence what we tell our children and youth are possible.

Why aren’t more girls interested in pursuing STEM careers? Research suggests that it’s linked to gender biases. The persistent stereotypes are that boys are better than girls at math, and that scientists are mostly white men, and this keeps many girls from pursuing their interests. Some studies show that girls as young as 6 have gendered ideas about intelligence and who is best-suited to these careers. And it can influence boys to grow into men who don’t help nurture safe, welcoming STEM spaces for everyone.

This is why the Canadian Women’s Foundation prioritizes building STEM and leadership opportunities for diverse girls. We want girls all over Canada to have a chance to envision themselves as STEM leaders in safe, supportive learning environments.

For example, we support TechGyrls, a girl-led group that fosters enduring interests in STEM (they built a prosthetic hand with a 3D printer), and Les Scientifines, a girls’ group that has been pushing for girls’ STEM development in the pandemic through virtual workshops in chemistry, math, physics, and botany.

These are the kinds of fun and exciting community programs that really work to show girls they can achieve any dream.

Listicle 2

Build intentional mentorship

Mentorship, apprenticeship, and guided practice has been a staple in many fields for hundreds of years. It has trained and encouraged and opened doors for many — but its benefits have been closed off to many people, too.

Formal and informal mentorship is understood to be a key component in growing inclusive leadership, and diverse women and equity-seeking people have been cut out of mentorship opportunities in many fields. It’s not hard to see why this happens, given who tends to be in the position to do mentoring and who they’re likely to believe has promise and can be “taken under their wing.”

This is why the important function of mentorship can’t be left to “just happen.” We have to invest in intentional mentorship programs and opportunities with a gender equity lens in male-dominated fields like STEM. And we need leaders who prioritize this and are held accountable when they don’t foster it.

Listicle 3

Patch the leaky pipeline

Getting women and girls into STEM is just the start. Sexism, racism, and other forms of systemic discrimination, as well as a lack of good growth opportunities and life supports, can make STEM workplaces unsuitable and even hostile for women and gender-diverse people. At the same time, we encourage them to make inroads into these fields — we can’t set them up to fail in bad workplaces and get pushed out in practice. They won’t last in these circumstances, let alone be able to rise to the ranks of leadership and affect organizational change.

It’s not just about hiring biases. Look at workplace politics, practices, and policies. For example, does the workplace have strong parental leave policies? Are people punished for having caregiving responsibilities? Are anti-harassment and anti-discrimination measures in place, and do they actually work? In meetings, whose voices are heard and taken most seriously? Is the workplace all talk and Twitter when it comes to equity and inclusion, but when you ask people about their experiences, it rings hollow?

Employers have a duty to foster their employees’ success across the length of their careers. And it’s not just a duty — it’s smart business practice to make workplaces safe and equitable spaces.

Female scientist working in a lab

We have a long way to go, but fostering a gender-equal STEM sector will make things better for aspiring students, workers, workplaces, and the success and legitimacy of the field in Canada at large. This is a challenge we need to rise to.

During the pandemic, STEM development, leadership and confidence-building programs for girls are under threat due to interruptions, new costs, and closures. Contribute to the Canadian Women’s Foundation’s Tireless Together Fund to help ensure critical programs for diverse women and girls continue through the pandemic and in the recovery.

Andrea Gunraj is Vice President of Public Engagement for the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

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