Jane Jomy and Twinkle Mehta are Grade 12 students with big dreams: Ms. Jomy wants to be a scientific researcher and Ms. Mehta an engineer. As co-presidents of their school's Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) club, the two have researched their prospective careers and know what to expect. Unfortunately, one factor they can expect is a continued gender imbalance.
Statistics Canada figures from 2013 show that in 2011, women comprised 39 per cent of university graduates aged 25 to 34 with STEM degrees, and 66 per cent of graduates from non-STEM fields. But the numbers drop even lower in the latter half of the acronym, with women accounting for only 23 per cent of engineering graduates and 30 per cent of mathematics and computer science graduates.
Attitudes toward STEM often start in school, as the girls' own experiences illustrate.
Glenforest Secondary School's STEM club executive, from left: Marah Abdelkader, Jane Jomy, Twinkle Mehta, Gabriel Yeung and Simone Arta. (Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail)
Even at their progressive Glenforest Secondary School in Mississauga, occasional barriers materialize. For Ms. Mehta, it came when she recently joined the robotics team, and noticed an odd division of labour. "Initially all the girls gravitated to the non-technical roles and all the boys were doing the mechanical and programming. I was not okay with this, so the girls approached the team and convinced them we were capable of doing those tasks. It was unfortunate to see that gap," she says.
Ms. Jomy had her own moment of realization when she overheard a boy make a negative comment about girls at an information session for medical school hopefuls.
The girls credit their awareness of science careers to their school's STEM club, which has organized a Canadian Youth STEM conference in May. Chemistry teacher Diana Wang-Martin, who started the club in 2014 with two now-graduated students, says the inspiration came from the awareness that students had no idea about science career options beyond medical roles.
"Girls have to be convinced to be interested in engineering, math and computing. A lot of them don't know what engineers do or they just shy away from math. I just find there's a lack of interest in coding and engineering. It's unfortunate," she says.
Fortunately, the number of programs designed to engage girls in STEM activities has multiplied. Ms. Jomy credits her participation in the University Research Experience with Complex Systems (URECS) program at the University of Toronto with deepening her interest in research. U of T also offers a Girls in STEM Monthly Club for grades 6 through 9, and the University of Waterloo similarly also offers several STEM programs, including Think About Math workshops for girls in grades 9 and 10.
Shad Valley, a science and arts entrepreneurship camp for teens held at host universities across Canada and running since the 1980s, has seen its enrolment flip to a higher female ratio – about 60 to 40 – in recent years.
Larissa Vingilis-Jaremko founded the Canadian Association for Girls in Science (CAGIS) when she was 9 and overheard female friends saying they hated science. Poised to celebrate its 25th anniversary next year, CAGIS now has more than 100 volunteers and chapters in 10 cities across Canada. Volunteers host events in their own STEM workplaces, and share experiences, from working with solar cars to collecting swamp water with microbiologists or coding websites. By now, volunteers who joined the organization as girls have become mentors, creating a cycle of encouragement.
"Each week we have at least one e-mail from a former member saying, 'I think about CAGIS all the time and that it really influenced my decision to go into the sciences,'" says Dr. Vingilis-Jaremko.
Mentors are also a strong focus for the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology, where its program called ms infinity pairs girls for eight-week e-mentoring sessions with women in fields from medical to engineering to technology. "It's an invaluable experience – the mentors get a lot out of it and for the mentees, it's life changing," says Samsara Marriott, the program's co-ordinator.
Exposing teens to female role models in STEM careers can also help combat some of the stereotyping that girls encounter through media and television. Dr. Vingilis-Jaremko, who still speaks regularly at CAGIS meetings, says the image of the scientist as an older man in a lab coat with crazy hair and poor social interaction persists.
"To this day, when I go to a school and ask everyone to close their eyes and picture a scientist, I still get the majority of the class giving that description," she says. Such stereotypes can start at a young age, she adds, prompted even from subtle cues from well-meaning parents who tell their girls that their father might be a better source for help with math or fixing the computer.
As for other tips for encouraging girls, Ms. Jomy and Ms. Mehta say that exposing girls to STEM topics at an early age can be helpful. Their STEM club recently started a new initiative to help Grade 3 girls at nearby Nahani Way Public School learn about robotics. Teacher Ms. Wang-Martin says the difference between younger and older girls trying mechanical things is remarkable. "There are no barriers in Grade 3, so they take up Lego [pieces] and they build something." She adds that parents can help children even younger to start playing with code through apps such as Tynker, Lightbot or ScratchJr.
Several experts also mention the benefit of an all-female environment promoted by organizations such as CAGIS and Ladies Learning Code, whose offerings include girls' coding workshops.
"I see that there are women out there. They are capable and I know I'm capable, so that builds my confidence," says Ms. Mehta.