When Lauren Howe was 16 years old, she had a natural interest in STEM and dreamed of being a neurosurgeon. She went on to graduate from the University of Toronto with a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering. In 2017, Lauren represented Canada at the Miss Universe competition, and used her platform to show that the pageant world isn’t all about what’s on the outside. We asked Lauren to share why diversity and inclusion in STEM is important to her and how the stigma around girls in STEM can be broken down.
Mediaplanet: Why is it important to foster diversity and inclusion in engineering?
Lauren Howe: As our world becomes increasingly integrated with technology, it’s essential that talent and decision-makers are made up of a well-rounded group of individuals who bring different experiences and perspectives to the table. Having a diverse team is better for business and helps provide solutions that can serve a wider audience’s needs. In order to get there, there must be support systems in place to reduce barriers to entry and provide ongoing support for success.
Alongside the engineering design process, I was taught the importance of user-centered design. In order to design something that has a high adoption rate, you should understand who you’re designing for, and their needs, wants, and restrictions. If engineers are designing a new product and initially making assumptions about an end user, would it not be best to have a diverse group of people with different experiences, cultures, genders, and perspectives to engineering products to help diversify thought?
For example, there’s an increasing gender gap in AI. According to the World Economic Forum, only 22% of the world’s AI professionals are female. This is important to observe because AI is built off algorithms determined by the humans who create it. Without diversity, there may be an inherent bias in the data used to build the algorithms that hinders equality in certain areas. There have been a few reported cases of this already with governments trying to take action to prevent it. It’s important to realize this early on in order to be proactive on what skills we should consider learning.
What advice do you have for girls and women who feel that STEM subjects are too difficult?
It’s important to stay motivated. STEM subjects are far from being easy and it’s completely normal to think that you may not be good at them. However, no one is good at a new skill or subject right off the bat. Choose to learn because it interests you, rather than focusing on the pursuit of a high grade. I dropped physics in grade 11 because I was incredibly focused on selecting the subjects that would give the highest average in order to get into the right post-secondary programs. In hindsight, this was silly.
It’s easy to drop something because of a grade that’s supposed to represent how good you are at that subject. That single score is far from being an accurate assessment of your abilities. Everyone learns differently, and perhaps you would succeed at the same subject in a slightly different environment. This ranges from what may happen in your personal life to different teaching styles. Some individuals succeed when focusing on theoretical work and academic studies while others thrive in environments that are more hands-on, applying theoretical principles. Personally, I’m more of the latter and am happy to have learned the theoretical foundations in order to feel more confident when applying them.
There were countless moments where I considered changing degrees because I felt I wasn’t capable or intelligent enough compared to my peers. Everyone has their own talents and every tough experience eventually passes, just like many other moments in life.
What’s the most rewarding thing about pursuing STEM?
While it’s a cliché, I think one of the most rewarding things about having pursued an engineering degree is the problem-solving mindset I developed and the structured thinking skills. This can be said for STEM as a whole. This built confidence when tackling new challenges that, frankly, I may know nothing about. Rather than looking at a problem and feeling roadblocked, I dive into researching and applying a solution. For example, I wasn’t the strongest programmer in university. At my first job out of school, I thought a specific process in my role could be automated to make for a more efficient use of time and spent two weeks learning a new language to do just that.
Another rewarding aspect of STEM is the ability to be creative. I think this is a common misconception for STEM-related fields — that they’re not creative — but to find new innovative solutions requires a certain degree of creativity, which can be quite fun!
Why do you think it’s important to empower women around the world to reach their potential?
Empowering women to reach their potential not only helps individuals, it creates positive impacts in businesses and communities. To me, empowerment involves speaking up and creating support systems. In both scenarios, it’s critical to understand, and more importantly ask, what skills and opportunities women need to help them grow and the best method of implementation. There’s no simple, one-size-fits-all solution.