‘You can’t be what you can’t see’

How do you increase the number of women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics? Toronto-based photographer Natalia Dolan asked female leaders in these fields to weigh in

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Donna StricklandWinner of the Nobel Prize in Physics and professor at the University of WaterlooDonna StricklandWinner of the Nobel Prize in Physics and professor at the University of Waterloo

“I would give the same advice to women and men: that they need to know inside themselves what they really like to do. If what they really like to do is science, they should just go for it and try their best. It’s not easy, they have to work hard, but if that’s what you want to do then just go for it.”

Ella ChenData scientist, Zero Gravity Labs, LoyaltyOneElla ChenData scientist, Zero Gravity Labs, LoyaltyOne

“In my opinion, if there are more educators in STEM helping youth see beyond theories and grades, helping them build their confidence and appreciation for the sciences and discover the impact they could have, the future landscape will be very different.”

Nadia HamiltonFounder and president of MagnusmodeNadia HamiltonFounder and president of Magnusmode, which uses mobile technology to assist people with autism and other cognitive special needs

“Throughout my career I have had strong and gifted female mentors who have supported my dream, often on a voluntary basis. It has made the world of difference to me to be made aware of opportunities and be shown the ins and outs of running and growing a business by women who have done it successfully. I think leaders of today can increase participation of women in STEM by leading by example, and offering time and resources to aid and inspire other women to cultivate, practise and master competencies.”

Pearl SullivanDean of engineering, University of WaterlooPearl SullivanDean of engineering, University of Waterloo

“Engineering is fundamentally about practical problem-solving to improve quality of life and strengthen our economy. Technology today requires end-to-end solutions, which would mean input from both men and women. In general, a lack of women with the right technical skill sets has created great challenges for industry. Academia has recognized that a concerted effort to attract women to study in STEM fields is crucial to moving the dial and addressing the acute shortage.”

Emma MogusStudent, inventor, activistEmma MogusUndergraduate student at McMaster University, activist (co-founder of Books With No Bounds) and inventor (of a tongue-controlled computer mouse for people with ALS, called Tongue Interface Communication or TiC).

“To better increase the participation of girls and women in STEM, Canada as a society must increase exposure of leading females on STEM career paths. An often unaddressed reason for the presence of a gender gap comes from the harmful ‘token woman in the boardroom’ narrative, in which the system makes one feel as though there is only room for a select few women in the profession. This can cause girls pursuing these male-dominated fields to view other women as competition, rather than teammates. It is important to foster a sisterhood within STEM, and that female leaders use their position to advocate for other women.”

Shiz AokiCo-founder and CEO, BioRenderShiz AokiCo-founder and CEO, BioRender

What I do: I’m a medical illustrator, and a STE(A)M advocate (the "A" stands for Arts!). As a medical illustrator, I visualize the complex world of science, such as human anatomy, ecology and long-extinct species.

“I believe leaders in the field need to talk about STEM from a holistic standpoint. Being a ‘woman in STEM’ is not one particular profile. It is broad and diverse, and each person brings their unique perspective, passion and experiences. That’s where interesting discoveries are born. … Lastly, men need to be part of the discussion. Today, men are still much more likely to hold leadership positions and be in the public eye. We need forward-thinking, open-minded men to help push the conversation forward.

Inmar GivoniSenior engineering manager, Uber ATG TorontoInmar GivoniSenior engineering manager, Uber ATG Toronto

What I do: I lead a team of research engineering and software engineers. Our mandate is to take research prototypes of advanced AI algorithms for autonomous driving and actually make them work in the real world, on autonomous vehicles.

“I learned about imposter syndrome at the Grace Hopper Celebration, the largest annual event for women in computing, and that was a real ‘aha’ moment regarding all my insecurities and constant sense that I was not good enough to be doing what I was doing, and that I was just clever enough to trick everyone into thinking the opposite. Turns out almost everyone feels that way. That was really helpful to start dealing with not listening to that voice and trusting myself.”

Komal SinghEngineering program manager at Google, author/creator of STEM-themed children's book Ara the Star EngineerKomal SinghEngineering program manager at Google, author/creator of STEM-themed children's book Ara the Star Engineer

“I grew up in India in the eighties. My dad was an engineer and my mom a homemaker. I really admired my father’s technical know-how and problem-solving skills, and my mother’s artistic creativity. My dad’s journey inspired me to become a software engineer.

“‘Engineers are boys.’ What would you do if your four-year-old daughter said this to you? As a woman in tech, a person of colour, a first-gen immigrant, a mother of two, I just had to do something to bust that bias for kids.

“We are struggling with diversity in tech – the female population in the world is about 50 per cent but we have less than 25 per cent women in the tech work force. When women are not represented in the decision-making or the innovation process, we do not end up designing/building inclusive products for the world that reflect the real needs and challenges of the users.”

Asia Shahulhameed Enterprise systems manager, Bank of MontrealAsia Shahulhameed Enterprise systems manager, Bank of Montreal

“I grew up in a very small coastal village in South India, where the community didn’t believe in higher education and careers for women in general. My father used to work in a bookstore – he loved reading, especially National Geographic magazine. It is those books he read in his free time that showed him the world for us girls beyond his village. I was 15, the perfect age according to my community to keep me at home and train me on household work and get me married off. This was the norm, so I never imagined that I would continue my education, let alone have a career in anti-money-laundering technology for a bank in Canada. … Girls are naturally creative thinkers. I hope girls see a career in STEM as a positive thing and start pursuing it.”

Rachel ClarkTechnical delivery manager, Next Generation Payments Platform, TDRachel ClarkTechnical delivery manager, Next Generation Payments Platform, TD

“For me, it starts with education. We have to encourage young women that STEM is not off-limits to them just because of their gender and that STEM fields aren’t male-only. I think sometimes the contributions of women in STEM historically aren’t recognized until after they have left this world, or not at all.”

Amna AliUndergraduate student, biomedical science, University of GuelphAmna AliUndergraduate student, biomedical science, University of Guelph

“It was a tough decision to go into biology and research since I’m always asked questions like, ‘So what are your career opportunities? Will you be a doctor? Are there jobs in that field?’ I keep thinking to myself every now and then if I made the right decision, but every time I step into my lab, I know I did!”

Sorren IslerSenior product manager, EcobeeSorren IslerSenior product manager, Ecobee

“Involvement in STEM is a life-long opportunity. Having teachers, parents and other role models in children’s lives to support and encourage curiosity in math, science, tech and engineering in young women is key to increasing participation. My own relationship with STEM was a rocky one until late in university, and by then, I’d started to distance myself. My interest in tech, logistics and problem-solving luckily kept me overlapping with STEM enough that I didn’t miss out, but I easily could have, and that’s a sad scenario I don’t like to think about.”

Claudette McGowanChief information officer, enterprise technology employee experience, Bank of MontrealClaudette McGowanChief information officer, enterprise technology employee experience, Bank of Montreal

“If you don’t know an opportunity exists, it’s unlikely you will aspire to go where no woman has gone before you. I know first-hand about the elements of loneliness in being the first and only. That being said, beautiful things happen when we share our stories. I encourage female leaders to be more loud and proud about their achievements in STEM.”

Karen MaxwellAssistant professor, department of biochemistry, University of TorontoKaren MaxwellAssistant professor, department of biochemistry, University of Toronto

What I do: Biomedical research on viruses that infect bacteria. We’re trying to figure out how they make lung infections in cystic fibrosis patients worse and how they contribute to other conditions like Crohn’s disease and colitis.

“The big problem is not getting girls into STEM, it’s keeping women there. We know in the biomedical sciences that women are approximately equally represented at the undergraduate and graduate levels, but then their numbers fall. My area of research, biochemistry, is very male-dominated, and it’s really important for women to see people who look like them at the front of the classroom and in the laboratory. As [activist] Marian Wright Edelman said, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ I think as students see more women in leadership positions, in particular women balancing families with their teaching and research, that they will see a way forward for themselves.”

Jennifer JacksonPresident, Capital One Canada, PhD in chemical engineeringJennifer JacksonPresident, Capital One Canada, PhD in chemical engineering

"In high school, I participated in a program which aimed at getting more underrepresented minorities interested in engineering and science. While the course work was extremely challenging, it exposed me to different people who worked in STEM careers and highlighted many different jobs I didn’t even know existed. Broadening access to information about future career paths at a young age was critical for me, given that no family, friends or people in my communities worked in STEM fields. Without that exposure that I received at the right time, I wouldn’t have followed the path of chemical engineering or the subsequent career choices that led me to where I am today.

“Women leaders have a very important role in exposing young people to a wider variety of career paths. When girls don’t have family or people in their communities that work in those fields (or the women don’t), they are blind to those possibilities and more likely to opt out of STEM majors, which can sometimes seem intimidating. Participation can increase when women see and meet other women who look like them and have not only taken those journeys but succeeded.”

Natalie PanekAerospace engineer in mission systems, MDANatalie PanekAerospace engineer in mission systems, MDA

What I do: I help build space robots. They could be robotic arms (similar to the Canadarm) – or part of a new Mars rover.

“One of my biggest lessons learned over the last few years is related to success and how failure has shifted my perception of success. I have come to appreciate that success is not necessarily the “climb the ladder” vertical movement I always thought it was. My success has been very lateral, extending into different disciplines with opportunities to give back to others. It is so important to recognize that success does not look the same for everyone. We should always be willing to help support someone else’s definition of success as they strive to reach their goals.

“It is also vital to remember that there are many girls who are already interested in STEM – we do not necessarily need to inspire an interest in STEM, but rather ensure that their passion for STEM is not eroded away by external barriers. On the other hand, we also need to consider that not all young people have access/exposure to STEM at an early age (this assumes some level of privilege). We need to support all avenues to help change the ratio: exposure, retention, recruitment, promotion.”

Anahita JamiResearch and program manager, Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation ConsortiumAnahita JamiResearch and program manager, Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium

“There are many occasions that I walk into a room (for a meeting, a conference, a presentation session) filled with white males. This could be intimidating for a woman to speak up and express her opinion. Besides the fact that the number of women in STEM roles is less than men, there are even fewer women in decision-making roles. Structural barriers, social constructs, stereotyping are among the reasons behind this gap. STEM fields are crucial; they enable us to find solutions posed by global challenges such as climate change, global health epidemics and increased income inequality. There are many benefits – economic and social – associated with getting more women engaged in the STEM fields to bring interesting ideas to life from the perspective of a woman.”

Alysa ObertasPhD candidate, department of astronomy and astrophysics, University of TorontoAlysa ObertasPhD candidate, department of astronomy and astrophysics, University of Toronto

What I do: I study the orbital motions of planets in compact systems to understand how observed systems have been sculpted throughout their histories to their present-day configurations.

“I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school and continue my career in astronomy, but I had a difficult time deciding which programs to apply to. There were several great programs, but I did not know if I would feel safe or comfortable living in some places as a queer woman. I’ve been fortunate to grow up and live in Canadian cities with great LGBTQ+ communities, and it’s so easy to take that for granted. When I move for the next stage of my career after finishing my PhD, there are places in the world that aren’t safe or smart choices for me. I’ve had many people dismiss me, but I need to know that I can have legal rights with a partner and that we can raise a family together.

“Canadian leadership in STEM still has a lot of room for growth and improvement. It’s still largely white and male and that’s not going to change if institutions aren’t held accountable. Initiatives to encourage children and youth to pursue their passions in STEM are wonderful, but they will fall flat if more action isn’t taken at higher levels in STEM careers. Women, LGBTQ+ folk and people of colour are already here. We need diverse teams to tackle harder questions and challenges, but that can’t happen if people are being pushed out along the way.”

About the project

When she was in high school, Natalia Dolan failed her math and science classes. Her teachers told her she was an “arts kid” and should stick with what she was good at. She did, but she resented being made to feel she didn’t have what it takes to pursue a career in science. Now, the Toronto-based photographer has turned her lens to women working in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – in an effort to break down stereotypes and draw attention to systemic barriers women face.

Natalia Dolan

Female participation in STEM is key, as STEM skills are crucial for innovation and solving economic and societal issues. The statistics are troubling: Among workers aged 25 to 64 in scientific occupations, only 28 per cent are women, 2016 data from Statistics Canada reveals. As of December, 2016, women accounted for just 30 per cent of research chairs at universities. And a recent study revealed that funding is less likely to be awarded to female health scientists if those rewarding the grants know who will be doing the science.

Many women in STEM with whom Ms. Dolan spoke shared the obstacles they’ve faced and offered solutions to overcome them. Ms. Dolan talked to The Globe and Mail about the project.

How did this project come about? Why is it important to you?

I focus on portraiture and I do a lot of work with tech companies like Google, Sidewalk Labs and Ryerson TMZ [Transmedia Zone], and I was shooting a lot of women in STEM fields. Move the Dial, an organization that focuses on summits to increase the number of women in STEM, saw my work and asked if I wanted to exhibit it at their next summit. I had a mini-installation of women I did from my own work. And I thought of doing a series out of this.

It’s more than STEM. It’s a bigger message that can apply to people in the arts. It’s really that, it’s cheesy, but girls can do anything.

Why did you choose to highlight these particular women?

They’ve all accomplished amazing things at different stages in different fields. But the thesis here is that there’s still a long way to go. There’s still work to do. I liked the idea of listening one-on-one to these women and saying, “Okay, what worked for you? Tell me about your success and what the world can do better – what Canada can do better.”

I’m passionate about our country doing well economically and socially. I’m passionate about the environment and about disease prevention. It’s STEM jobs that are going to work on these areas.

And when we have these conversations, we cannot possibly solve these issues without 51 per cent of the population at the table. How do you solve problems when 51 per cent of the population isn’t there to bring their perspective?

How does this project help break down barriers?

Exposing women leading in STEM is a huge help in terms of conversation and awareness. It’s about showcasing a diverse and inclusive list of women that little girls can see themselves in.

In your conversations with these women, what common themes emerged?

The common word, and I think it’s the perfect word for all of them, is resilience. There’s a common capacity that every single one of these women and girls have, to quickly recover from failures and challenges. They’re all open to taking a risk and failing and getting back up.

This interview and profiles have been edited for length and clarity.

See more of Natalia Dolan's work at @whorunthestemworld

CREDITS: Photography: Natalia Dolan; Writing: Shelby Blackley; Production and photo editing: Clare Vander Meersch; Design: Jeremy Agius.