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article imageHow Canada can bridge its gender deficit in STEM subjects Special

By Tim Sandle     Mar 8, 2018 in Science
Toronto - STEM fields in Canada are dominated by men — with 20 per cent fewer women venturing into such careers. How can this imbalance be addressed? Mayrose Salvador, founder of Pueblo Science, has some answers.
One reason why so few women are studying or employed in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) areas is due to a lack of interest in STEM programs among women early on. A recent study by Ismael Mourifie, assistant professor of Economics at the University of Toronto revealed that statistically, girls tend not to choose more math-intensive STEM programs due to math anxiety, which underscores the need for early learning intervention.
This prompts the question: "How can Canada address this STEM gender deficit early on?" On International Women's Day, Digital Journal spoke with Mayrose Salvador, founder of Pueblo Science, a Toronto-based charitable organization which works to advance science education across the world.
Digital Journal: How many women are employed in STEM fields in Canada, both industry and academia, and has this changed in recent years?
Mayrose Salvador: According to a 2016 report from Statistics Canada on Women in scientific occupations in this country, women held 39 percent of STEM degrees in 2011, a significantly greater number when compared to 20 years prior, where the percentage was 23 percent, so in terms of STEM education, this has improved. However, in this same study, the proportion of women in scientific occupations requiring a university education or college education was in the 20% range. So there is a disparity or drop-off between women who obtain STEM degrees, and women in the STEM workforce. Women are still very much under-represented.
DJ: Why is there a disproportionately low number of women in STEM fields?
Salvador: I personally think that there is a lack of role models. Girls needs to see what is possible and get advice on how to do it. Mentorship needs to start at an early age and be sustained even after graduate school.
Some people say there are implicit bias, which is partly historic, and sometimes we are reinforcing that bias unknowingly. It’s the perception that boys are good in Math and girls in reading; it's giving boys Legos and girls dolls; it's who you place in front of your kids as role models; it's what you may encourage or discourage in their interests.
DJ: How can girls' interest into STEM be stimulated at the elementary level?
Salvador: The best way to encourage girls into STEM is through hands-on learning. It is learning by doing. For example, one can learn about electricity by creating a simple wind turbine that powers a little LED.
Young girls need to be shown from an early age that STEM is fun, and is a realistic, acceptable and more so, respected career path for women. And, this needs to occur at all stages, from positive reinforcement among their peers and more senior schoolmates, from teachers, and from leaders.
We need to keep in mind that skills in STEM, like any other skill, is acquired, and not innate. When kids suffer a setback in learning, their response should be to try again because they'll eventually get it, and not to move on because they feel they are incapable of grasping the material.
DJ: Is there a better way to promote success stories of women in science and other fields?
Salvador:By facilitating direct interactions of successful women in science with young girls, teenagers and even women graduates. These events can be aided by technology (e.g. live online panel discussions) to increase the reach.
A child in school.
A child in school.
Simply CVR (CC BY-ND 2.0)
DJ: What can parents do to encourage girls to take an interest in STEM subjects?
Salvador:The best thing parents and teachers can do is to encourage hands-on learning, and there are many excellent resources online. Pueblo Science has some write ups available on our website and we even have a YouTube channel! There are of course many others.
It is not necessary to have to buy or use lab-grade or expensive hobbyist equipment. That is sort of the premise of Pueblo Science, with just $1 worth of wires and magnets you can show physics concept such as electromagnetism. And, especially for schools, it's not relegated to simple backyard science, for example, one of our kits explains electrophoresis, a technique used to analyse DNA, using 9V batteries, gelatin, wires and food dyes.
If they are interested in the STEM field, parents and teachers should encourage the children at all stages. In the same way, when you think your child aspires to be a future Olympian or violinist, you'd take them to sports or music camps, why not do the same for their aspirations to be a Nobel laureate?
Make them aware and celebrate the role models. Marissa Mayer was a computer scientist at Google, and became the CEO at Yahoo! At home, we have Julie Payette who is an astronaut, engineer, and presently Governor General of Canada! I bet many people don't know that the Chief scientist at NASA is Gale Allen, is a female chemist, and before her, was Ellen Stofan, a female geologist. All are women who are successful in the STEM fields! Encourage girls to see their success in school math and science is an indication that they have the skills to succeed in STEM professions.
Rocky Mountain High School.
Rocky Mountain High School.
CAIRtv / Screengrab
DJ: How about the education system overall, what reforms are needed?
Salvador:A greater emphasis is needed on on hands-on learning and inquiry-based learning. Of course, hands-on learning is more resource intensive, as it requires materials, for small groups or even for individual students, so the educational system would need the resources to accommodate this. Also, maybe implementing professional development training that is geared towards hands-on and inquiry based modules.
Some ideas are having programs such as after school STEM clubs, science fairs and making science camps accessible for all young girls regardless of socioeconomic status. Also, bring in accomplished women in science as speakers and be role models and develop women faculty teaching science on all levels.
Other ideas are supporting mentorship programs that connect women in science professions to female students and young girls and being aware of implicit biases and remind teachers that they need to send the message that intellectual skills can be acquired and anyone who works hard can succeed in their classrooms.
DJ: Is there support for reform from education authorities and politicians?
Salvador:I think so, we are beginning to see changes implemented at all levels. Even beyond the sciences, for example, we see a lot of support recently for girls learning to code and other related programs and initiatives.
DJ: What role is Pueblo Science playing in sparking an interest within girls for STEM subjects?
Salvador:Overall, we try to lead by example. In addition to myself, and my co-founder, Prof. Cynthia Goh from the University of Toronto, many of our members and volunteers are women. So, when we give our workshops at different locations, it is our hope that we are setting an example that women are capable in STEM.
Using our know-how and materials developed in training the over 2,500 teachers in Southeast Asia, and the Caribbeans since 2011, we are excited to launch a new program for the indigenous communities in Canada that will allow science professionals to teach fun science to teenage girls. Through this we hope to encourage their pursuit for deeper understanding and promote peer-to peer mentorship.
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