Why it’s important to redress gender STEM balance: Interview Special

Posted Mar 21, 2018 by Tim Sandle
A recent survey on Canadian students’ and parents’ attitude towards coding highlights a significant gender gap across the board when it comes to involvement in STEM. To understand why Jennifer Flanagan, of the charity Actua, gives some answers.
A child in school.
A child in school.
Simply CVR (CC BY-ND 2.0)
The first comprehensive study on Canadian kids attitudes toward STEM (Actua’s National Coding Survey) demonstrates important findings on Canadian students’ and parents’ attitude towards coding, highlighting a gender gap across the board when it comes to girls and boys getting involved in STEM.
The study showed a lack of resources available for youth and underrepresented groups nationally and a lack of confidence in students’ coding abilities (especially in young girls and underrepresented groups). These and other key findings were examined in the Digital Journal article “New study on Canadian kids attitudes toward STEM”.
The study came from Actua, a Canadian charity that sets out to help prepare youth to be innovators and leaders by engaging them in exciting and accessible STEM experiences that build critical skills and confidence. To learn more about the study and STEM in Canada, Digital Journal spoke with Jennifer Flanagan, Actua’s CEO.
Digital Journal: What proportion of young women are entering STEM fields in Canada?
Jennifer Flanagan: Today, women represent less than 25 percent of Canada’s STEM workforce. This number drops as you get into executive level positions.
DJ: To what extent do the numbers drop off between high school and university?
Flanagan: Research shows that women, even if they do well in math and science in high school, are more likely to pursue post-secondary degrees in social sciences. If they do pursue STEM, they are more likely to pursue biology or science, over engineering, computer science or math. This has negative implications for gender balance in the labor market as computer science and engineering often leads to higher earning jobs.
DJ: Does the main problem originate at school level? Also, what are the main reasons for young women not being engaged in STEM subjects?
Flanagan: It starts even before kids go to school. We tell parents and teachers to start engaging girls in STEM as early and often as possible because most girls otherwise get turned off of STEM at a very early age. We live in a culture where the majority of people you see doing STEM are men - whether its at school, at work or on TV. A study by the journal Science reported that: “girls are less likely than boys to believe that members of their gender are “really, really smart.” Also at age 6, girls begin to avoid activities said to be for children who are “really, really smart.” These findings suggest that gendered notions of brilliance are acquired early and have an immediate effect on children’s interests.
The opportunity gap is also prevalent, especially in computer science. Actua recently conducted a survey “Coding the Future: What Canadian youth and their parents think about coding”, which revealed that parents are twice as likely to sign their sons up for coding camps and experiences outside of school than their daughters. This is critical because we are already living in a world where the majority of computer science and technology jobs are occupied by men. We need women’s voices at the table so that we aren’t living in a world exclusively designed by men. The engagement of girls must start early in order for that to happen.
Students studying for an exam
Students studying for an exam
Albeiro Rodas
DJ: How much of this is due the educational system?
Flanagan: Girls often report that they are still receiving discouraging messages and cues at school - both from teachers and from their peers about their participation and interest in STEM. This has improved significantly as teachers and schools become aware of unconscious bias and many are now aware of the need to equally encourage boys and girls in these subject areas. Ongoing awareness-building is still very important.
DJ: Also, how much is due to government policy?
Flanagan: The federal government has come a long way. Until this year, the only support available for STEM opportunities for underrepresented youth was through PromoScience, whose budget was very lean and had to go towards several organizations across Canada (Actua has received support from PromoScience for the past 18 years). In January however, the federal government announced $50M in support for coding and digital skills development for underserved and underrepresented youth. This type of investment is unprecedented. Actua was fortunate to receive $10M of this funding over 2 years. We need continued investment by governments in engaging girls early and often in experiences that build confidence and skills in STEM.
DJ: What can be done by institutions to address the gender gap in STEM?
Flanagan: Post-secondary institutions can continue to, and increase, support for STEM outreach programs within their institutions. For example, all of Actua’s 35 network member programs are based out of universities or colleges.
Actua provides support to these programs - Engineering Outreach at the University of Toronto and Geering Up at University of British Columbia - to deliver camps, clubs and workshops for all youth, but also programs specifically for girls. Government institutions can make more long term investments in youth, specifically girls’ access and opportunities to STEM experiences outside of school.
DJ: How about parents? How can they assist?
Flanagan: Parents are still the most significant influencers of their daughters and this absolutely holds true for girls’ interest in science and technology. Actua and our network members work extensively to build this awareness in parents. We encourage parents to sign their girls up for STEM experiences outside of school - whether its a camp, after school club or workshops. They should also ensure that they are not limiting their daughters’ screen time compared to their sons. Screen time can be made into productive time for girls not just to consume what’s online but to build digital skills.
DJ: What programs is Actua running to address the STEM gender divide?
Flanagan: Actua has a national girls program that’s focused on providing girls skills and confidence building experiences in STEM in an all-girls environment. Local programs are delivered by Actua’s network of member programs in communities across Canada. These programs, which include workshops, camps and clubs for girls, are led by women who are taking undergraduate degrees in STEM. Programs also connect them to women role models in STEM from both the private and public sectors to learn about future career paths.
DJ: What successes have you had recently?
Flanagan: Actua’s network of members is now engaging over 250,000 youth across Canada including more than 35,000 Indigenous youth and over 15,000 girls through all-girls programs.
We were thrilled to receive $10 million in CanCode funding from the federal government to support increased digital skills programming for youth, with a specific focus on underrepresented audiences including girls. We’ve also seen an increase in corporate support and demand for scaling up our programming across the country.
DJ: In terms of goals, what would you like the situation to be in five years time?
Flanagan: We want to be in a position where we’re seeing more investment in both the private and public sector in getting more girls access to opportunities in STEM, as well as more women in STEM leadership roles. These go hand in hand, because as soon as there are more women in top positions, girls will become more confident and motivated, and the women leaders will in turn hire more women to fill jobs where they are currently underrepresented.