Reaching our full potential: women and girls in science
March 6, 2020
I still have my first microscope. My dad, a chemical engineer, gave it to me when I was in primary school. It was a real scientific light microscope, with up to 100x lenses and a separate light that shone onto a mirror that reflected it up through the lenses. It came in a big black box that locked with a key. It was the starting point of a lifelong passion for science.
I am grateful to have parents who supported and encouraged my interest in science growing up. Looking back, I didn’t have any examples of women scientists that I knew about or could emulate. Marie Curie always seemed more like a historical figure than a role model.
I often think of the Draw-A-Scientist Test where, Dr. David Chambers asked almost 5,000 children from 1966-1977 to draw their vision of a scientist. When the pictures came back, a dismal 28 drawings depicted women, and all were drawn by girls.
Dr. Chambers’ test has been repeated over the past five decades, and despite the progress we’ve made, neither these results nor the actual representation of women in science compared to men have reached parity.
It’s certainly not a question of ability. The majority of school-aged girls demonstrate interest, strength and competencies across the board in science and math, yet only a minority are turning these skills into careers. Why? Because barriers like systemic biases and outdated preconceptions about the role of women in science persist, beginning in the earliest years of childhood.
A study by the UK Institution of Engineering and Technology noted that STEM toys are marketed to boys three times more often than girls on retail websites. A separate study demonstrated overwhelmingly that STEM toys were purchased by parents for their sons, but far less so for their daughters (Inman and Cardella).
Intentionally or not, girls are being steered away from an interest in science. Those who do follow their interest in science encounter still more barriers along the way, like outdated beliefs that young women must choose between having children and advancing their careers, or the more subtle but ever-present micro-aggressions and biases that influence day-to-day experiences.
These barriers may be unconscious at times but they hold us all back in very real ways. There is overwhelming evidence that shows participation of women in science is critical for achieving more useful, meaningful results. Leaving women out of the equation actually hinders scientific progress. Removing those barriers, opening opportunities, and ensuring inclusion for women clears the road to a career in science and a better future for us all.
Today, there are a wide variety of programs across the country that provide opportunities for girls in science, options that didn’t exist when I was focusing my first microscope. NSERC is proud to support these initiatives through our PromoScience program - we also partner with libraries, museums, science centres and other STEM organizations to deliver national celebrations like Science Odyssey, Science Literacy Week and Little Inventors. Each of these events includes a focus on connecting girls and young women to opportunities to develop their skills and apply their ideas to any topic they are passionate about, whether it’s the science of music, or sports, or whales, or black holes… the sky is the limit.
When I was a teenager, I got my first research experience with a paid summer internship in a biology lab at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College through Women in Science and Engineering NL. If the microscope started my love of science, stepping into a lab secured my interest for life.
Since that first internship, my career in science has allowed me to meet people from all over the world, both in the lab and while traveling abroad. I’ve lived in provinces from Newfoundland to BC, and moved down the coast for a stint in California. I worked in labs with people from over 15 different countries, all brought together by our passion for research. These are opportunities I only had because I followed my passion for science.
So, on this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, I would like to remind us that we all have a role to play in reducing barriers and encouraging female students. Until women have equal access to the full range of opportunities to contribute their talents in science and engineering, we are only limiting Canada’s future prosperity.