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Photographer Heike Delmore documents Kushboo Patel in action at Valiant TMS in Windsor, Ont., as part of a photo campaign to show women working in STEM and the trades.Rob Gurdebeke

Dora Strelkova has always been interested in how things work. Her dad, who she describes as a “jack-of-all-trades,” often built things in his home workshop and taught her how to use tools such as a power saw. But when Ms. Strelkova joined her school’s robotics team in Grade 9, she felt intimidated as one of only three girls on a team of 15.

“I went to the first meeting and they were using all these technical terms and terminologies and tools,” Ms. Strelkova says. “They were working on their robot already. I had no idea what they were doing. I was so intimidated. I stopped going to meetings.”

A few months later, at a job fair held at her Windsor, Ont., high school, Ms. Strelkova won a raffle prize to attend a week-long summer camp through the Windsor-based non-profit Build a Dream. The camp was meant for young girls to learn more about skilled trades.

“I was introduced to an electrician and we wired a home circuit with a switch and a lightbulb,” Ms. Strelkova recalls. The camp piqued Strelkova’s interest in hands-on activities. In Grade 10, she rejoined the robotics team and went on to become a team leader in Grade 12. Now, she’s in her fourth year studying electrical engineering at the University of Windsor.

“I think a lot of girls still grow up thinking that STEM-related or engineering fields aren’t meant for women, which is a completely false narrative that we need to rewrite,” she says.

Sparking that ‘aha’ moment

Exposure to career pathways is an important factor in helping young women see engineering as a viable option, says Nour Hachem-Fawaz, president and founder of Build a Dream. This national non-profit organization, founded in 2014 and backed by industry sponsors including EllisDon, Enbridge, Spark Power, ulr TMS and Magna International, was created to advance diversity and inclusion initiatives and encourage female students to explore careers where women are under-represented.

In Canada, engineering is one industry where women lag far behind in representation. According to national organization Engineers Canada, women made up only 14.2 per cent of total national membership in 2020.

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Dora Strelkova, an electrical engineering student at the University of Windsor, uses a 3D printer as part of a photo shoot for Build a Dream at Valiant Machine and Tool.Rob Gurdebeke

For many Build a Dream events, Ms. Hachem-Fawaz says her team engages both parents and their daughters to learn about career paths in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and the trades. They educate parents about the high demand for STEM and trades professionals and the prospects for financial gain through these career paths. When speaking to students, the approach changes, she says.

“[Young women] often say ‘I want to help people,’” she explains. “We highlight how career pathways in STEM and skilled trades help build, create and design communities.”

For example, they might explain how civil engineers design hospitals to ensure they are safe and accessible for the public.

“When you position it that way, an ‘aha’ moment happens and they’re like, ‘Okay, now I can see how that’s going to make an impact.’”

‘Near-peer’ mentorship

At the University of Alberta, Ania Ulrich, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and the faculty’s first female department chair, helped develop Fem+, a seven-month mentorship program for high school students of under-represented genders.

“What’s been key about this program is it uses the model of near-peer mentorship,” Dr. Ulrich says. “As opposed to somebody middle-aged, like me, going into the classroom, we get undergraduate female engineering students who are currently in the program to pair up one-to-one with these students.”

Dr. Ulrich says the group focuses on building relationships and creating meaningful connections rather than hosting competitions, which can be “a very male-centric way of approaching things.” Program participants have gone on field trips to the observatory, learned about a group building wildfire-identifying satellites and talked with engineering professors and working professionals.

The effectiveness of Fem+ was clear after its first cohort of 30 students completed the program in 2018, says Dr. Ulrich. (They’ve since expanded to 60 high school students.)

“In our first year, 89 per cent of the [high school] students [who participated] came to our engineering program,” she says. “The remainder went to other STEM programs, like the sciences or computer science. We’ve had really high success.”

While Build a Dream and Fem+ focus on high school-aged students, others in the industry are introducing careers in STEM to girls at an even younger age. For example, Komal Singh, a Google engineering program manager based in Waterloo, Ont., has written two children’s books: Ara the Star Engineer and Ara the Dream Innovator, to get more young girls interested in STEM. Since first being published in 2018, Ara the Star Engineer has been translated into ten languages.

Busting stereotypes

Industry and societal stereotypes also play a role in how young women and their parents view careers in the trades and STEM, Ms. Hachem-Fawaz says. That’s why Build A Dream hosted a series of photo shoots with women at job sites this past summer and fall.

“We were struggling to find stock images of women in the industry that weren’t staged or filled with makeup,” she says. “As opposed to showing them carrying a tool bag, why don’t we show them working with those tools in action?”

The photos capture women working in construction, automotive engineering, manufacturing, millwork and more. The images from the shoots are available to the public and Ms. Hachem-Fawaz hopes that companies, industry magazines and publications will make use of them.

The more young women see themselves reflected in these kinds of images, the more likely they will be to dream about a future in STEM and the trades, she says.

“It’s about a societal shift,” she says.

This story has been updated to correctly reflect Dr. Ania Ulrich’s title.

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