STEMinism: Chasing diversity and equality in STEM

Author: Camila Londono, 10/14/16
Inspiring Women in STEM: a collage assembled by Jennifer Ma, University of Toronto, with materials provided by attendees of SHE DID THAT: A Celebration of Women in STEM.

Inspiring Women in STEM: a collage assembled by Jennifer Ma, University of Toronto, with materials provided by attendees of SHE DID THAT: A Celebration of Women in STEM.

On October 11 I attended SHE DID THAT, the Ada Lovelace event, held at the University of Toronto, that Samantha Payne wrote about in Signals earlier this week. It was an exciting evening that not only celebrated incredible women in science, but also served as a reminder that we have a long way to go in promoting inclusivity, diversity, and equity in STEM, and that doing so will be the key to our continued progress.

The keynote speaker, Dr. Imogen Coe, Dean of the Faculty of Science at Ryerson University, delivered a talk on STEMinism, a portmanteau of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and feminism (the belief that equal rights are deserved by all, with a particular focus on male-female inequality). Though the whole talk was inspiring and eye-opening, two moments stuck with me.

First, the opening quote of an article written by UofT Professor Jennifer Drake for TIME Magazine: “You’re in engineering? Wow, you must be super-smart.” As a graduate of UofT’s Engineering Science program as well as a PhD holder, I have heard this more times than I can remember, and while on its surface it sounds like a compliment, it rankles. It wasn’t until yesterday that I realized why that was: as Professor Drake explains, it implies that there is something inherently abnormal about pursuing a degree in engineering or a post-graduate degree. For women, who are often told in subtle ways they do not belong – such as the remarks that prompted the hashtags #distractinglysexy and #ILookLikeAnEngineer – these types of comments imply that, in some ways, we’ve gotten too big for our britches and are encroaching on a space that we have no right to.

The second, and perhaps more important, moment was the unveiling of a statistic that shows that, worldwide, female participation in STEM courses drops from around 50 per cent in high school to less than 25 per cent in higher education. This is driven by the same hostility that surrounds the prior point: girls are made to feel as though they have no place in science, and they believe it. Parents can help assuage those feelings by being more supportive, as outlined by Eileen Pollack in the video below. She is one of the first two women to attain an undergraduate degree in physics from Yale University. More informed classmates, who are actively encouraged to view girls as equals, also help.

But what if you are not a parent and you’re no longer in the classroom? What can you do to support girls, women and minority populations in STEM? You can make a difference by championing young girls and their dreams: remind girls in your lives that they’re smart; encourage them not to give up, even when the path seems hard; and, stand up for them when others discourage them. You can make an even bigger difference by helping any boys in your life recognize girls and women as equals.

Similar calls to action, aimed at the larger goal of improving the experiences of all women, went out on October 11 from many respected figures in Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a statement for the International Day of the Girl reminding Canadians of the #BecauseOfHer program, and reaffirming his government’s commitment to achieving equality for women. His wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, called on men to support women when she was talking with young girls in Toronto, while reminding us all that changing what we consider normal behaviour is hard.  Jim Woodgett, Director of Research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, suggested that a female-only cohort of the Canada Research Excellence Chairs (CERC) would help bridge the gender gap in Canadian research. A day later, the Minister of Science, the Honorable Kirsty Duncan, announced that consideration for CERC would require institutions to submit equity plans aimed at promoting diversity, which may be an even better solution as it tackles systemic causes of inequality.

At the University of Toronto, the Faculty of Medicine has just launched a campaign focusing on the importance of women mentors. You can show your support by taking to Twitter to thank the women who mentored you in your career and tag your tweet with #LeanIn and #UofTMed.

Ultimately, the take-home message from SHE DID THAT was two-fold: promoting diversity in science is critical to success, yet there are no easy answers. But as we see more and more men become invested in the cause of equality, we’re moving forward towards the day when being a woman in STEM is no longer a reason for surprise. To the day when I, and all women, can once again welcome being called super-smart. Again.

Our regular feature, Right Turn, appears every Friday and we invite you to submit your own blog to info(at)ccrm.ca. We encourage you to be creative and use the right (!) side of your brain. We dare you to make us laugh! Right Turn features cartoons, photos, videos and other content to amuse, educate and encourage discussion.

As always, we welcome your feedback in the comment section.

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Camila Londono

Camila Londono

Camila Londono is a recent PhD graduate from the University of Toronto’s Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, where she studied the mechanisms of coordination of collective cell migration. Her interest in helping move research from the benchtop to industry led her to an internship at CCRM, where she first became involved with Signals. She’s pleased to be contributing blogs on a regular basis now. Follow her on Twitter @drCLondono
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