Empowering women and girls in science

Photo courtesy of Vancouver Island University

Priscilla Shumba had an unfulfilled dream when she left her home in Zimbabwe for college life in Canada.

I wished I could be a biologist. I was really interested and did well in that,” says Shumba, now a business graduate from Columbia College. She is applying for further study, but the major will most likely stay unchanged.

Shumba’s passion for biology has eventually faded away, and this is what happens to a number of girls across the world.

Gender roles forced on women

Priscilla Shumba, business graduate from Columbia College. | Photo courtesy of Priscilla Shumba

On December 22, 2015, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a resolution to establish an annual International Day to recognize the critical role that women and girls play in science and technology.

“For too long, discriminatory stereotypes have prevented women and girls from having equal access to education in science, technology, engineering and math,” says the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, in a press release. “As a trained engineer and former teacher, I know that these stereotypes are flat wrong. They deny women and girls the chance to realize their potential — and deprive the world of the ingenuity and innovation of half the population.”

According to a study conducted in 14 countries, the probability for female students of graduating with a Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree and Doctor’s degree in science-related fields are 18 per cent, 8 per cent and 2 per cent respectively, while the percentages of male students are 37 per cent, 18 per cent and 6 per cent.

Danniele Livengood, Vice President and Director of SCWIST. | Photo courtesy of Danniele Livengood

Danniele Livengood, vice president of the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST), ascribes the gender gap to people’s implicit bias that has formed since an early age.

“If you watch kids’ television shows, and if you see someone in a scientific role, it’s almost always a man; and so let’s say you are a child growing up, and that’s a pattern you recognize,” says Livengood. “You haven’t consciously said that scientists are boys but the world has been telling you that.”

From observations she’s made as a woman scientist and activist, a tipping point emerges about when girls enter college. Gender roles that stereotype boys and girls have come to impact their decisions in academic and career planning.

“What we see, at least here in Canada, is that girls will perform in elementary, middle and high school so well. They get equal and sometimes better grades than boys, and then we get to the point [where they are] choosing the courses. That’s a grade-11 choice about whether they are going to stay in science classes,” says Livengood. “That’s where girls tend to be selected out. They just don’t see themselves in that career or ‘not as smart.’”

Ying Liu faced the same dilemma when she did her high school in mainland China. Her parents kept telling her science would be challenging for a girl and that art, which Liu ended up in, was a safer choice.

Ying Liu, UBC student. | Photo courtesy of Ying Liu

Now sitting in on a Computer Science class at UBC, Liu regrets not having followed her heart.

“I’m in my last year at UBC and it’s all too late to change my major,” says Liu. She can’t register the course because of her art background. “But really, math is my interest and I shouldn’t have given up on it.”

For Livengood, it is the cultural attitudes towards women that are to blame for their seemingly underperformance.

“It’s easier to ban the exclusion of women and girls, but it’s a lot harder to change culturally how people navigate the world so that they[women] feel included,” says Livengood.

She argues that girls don’t need to be put in more camps and encouraged to get more interest in science.

“That’s all well and good, but if they choose to go into a university program for science, they are [the] one and only woman in the entire program. They feel isolated and are told every single day that, ‘You don’t belong’ − you can’t really blame them for eventually leaving.”

Future of science and technology communities

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), it will take another 200 years for women to reach gender parity.

“It’s ridiculous,” says Livengood.

She hopes to see a change sooner through the efforts of the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST), the Westcoast Women in Engineering, Science and Technology (WWEST), and their ilk.

At WWEST, she manages a team to engage industry, the community and students to increase the awareness and participation of women and other under-represented groups in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

For Livengood, empowering women and girls in science means taking seriously the fact of differences among women, including different racial, sexual and linguistic backgrounds.

“This is an intersectional issue. The changes that we need to see in workplace and in academic settings actually benefit everyone who is not a straight, white, cis man, be a new immigrant, be people with different language backgrounds, be a woman, be any combination of those things,” says Livengood. “When you make an environment that values a diversity of opinions, that makes everyone feel included.”