Women and girls in science – still an uphill climb

Photo by Dale Northey

Despite global efforts to engage women and girls in science over the last 15 years, they continue to be excluded from full participation. Less than 30 per cent of researchers worldwide are women and UNESCO data shows that “only around 30 per cent of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education”.

To recognize the crucial role of women and girls in technology and promote their full and equal access to and participation in science, the UN established February 11 as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science in 2015. This day aligns with UNESCO’s priority on gender equality and belief in the importance of expanding diverse perspectives and skills within science to assist in addressing the challenges of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

Barriers to girls pursuing science

Sarah Johnson, Physics Lecturer at Simon Fraser University (SFU), highlights that only 20 per cent of undergraduate students majoring in physics are women, and this has remained stagnant since 2000.

“Physics has a reputation problem,” Johnson explains. “People see it as being difficult and very masculine and something that only geniuses can do. That you have to be like Sheldon Cooper on the Big Bang Theory to be a physicist, which is not true. So, I think girls don’t see themselves as physicists. And then just in general, the public doesn’t really know what physicists do and what you could do with a degree in physics.”

These misperceptions cause many girls to drop physics in grade 12, which limits them from pursuing careers in science later on if they choose, she adds. In 2009, Johnson and four other female SFU faculty members created the Girls Exploring Physics program.

“The main goal is to show girls how interesting and exciting physics is, to show them all the possible career paths they could pursue,” Johnson says.

She adds that the program also tries to show girls that physics can be used to help society and is not “an isolated, lonely” pursuit. The one-day program is open to girls in grades 9 and 10. Participants engage in hands-on activities, have lunch with some students and faculty, receive a campus observatory tour and a presentation about various career possibilities in the field. Johnson reports that a higher proportion of the girls who attend the workshop take Physics 12 than the general population of girls.

Challenges faced by immigrant women

Sweta Rajan, an immigrant scientist originally from India, faced bullying in her first laboratory position in the US. Her experience with isolation and cultural barriers ultimately led her to co-develop Immigrant and International Women in Science (IWS Network) to support other women going through similar challenges.

Sweta Rajan | Photo by Sheldon Carvalho Photography

Rajan notes that a critical challenge in coming to a new country is a lack of support networks.

“The biggest challenge for me was because I was out of my own cultural context, I had no idea whether the experience I was going through was normal or not,” she says. “It was only after I came out of that experience and started talking to others about it, that I realized that it was not normal and that I was actually being bullied.”

She highlights the systemic impacts of bullying and discrimination in a workplace environment, not only on the psyche of the person affected but in loss of productivity and consequent financial cost for the organization. And although Rajan’s experience happened almost twenty years ago, she notes that these kinds of experiences are unfortunately still prevalent today.

Started in 2018, IWS now has nine sister chapters across Canada: Vancouver, Ottawa, Saskatoon, Montreal, Quebec, Toronto, Mississauga, Charlottetown and Calgary. Rajan sees the core of the work as creating safe spaces where people can share their experiences and receive support. The collective wisdom of the group provides a pathway towards solutions.

“I remember clearly one of our members saying, ‘I am in psychology, this is so cathartic for me that I can share this and I know that it didn’t happen just to me, and I’m not alone’,” shares Rajan.

A recent Statistics Canada report highlights the barriers to employment that immigrants face, stating that only 39 per cent of immigrants with a bachelors in STEM are employed in their field of expertise. Rajan emphasizes that IWS Network’s membership reflects “people with exceptional skill sets [who] face the ‘no Canadian experience’ challenge, and a lot of untapped talent and experience is lost, costing the Canadian economy billions of dollars,” according to a 2019 Vancity report.

Potential pathways forward for Canada

Johnson believes science needs diverse teams with different viewpoints.

“There are lots of examples, especially in engineering, where things have been designed by only men and they didn’t take the female perspective into account and they missed important things,” she notes.

The Van de Graaff electrostatic generator is one of the many hands-on physics experiments girls can experience at the workshops. | Photo by Dale Northey

She recommends that Canada adopt the US STEP UP Program, which focuses on providing high school teachers with awareness of bias and the skills to break down stereotypes which may discourage girls from pursuing physics as a career path.

Rajan highlights the ongoing lack of women in leadership roles and the dependence on being granted permission to speak where it should be the norm. She invites the Canadian government to create grant programs where companies can take on an immigrant at low risk and see firsthand how capable they are. She urges companies to engage with immigrant communities to see what they can offer and begin to utilize the wealth of existing untapped talent. According to BDC, given that over 45 per cent of small- to medium-sized companies in BC are struggling to find talent, hiring immigrants creates a win-win situation.

For more information, please visit www.iwsnetwork.ca