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the xx factor: women in science

Girls at the one-day event worked with female mentors to encourage them to consider careers in science and technology.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

On a recent morning, in a spacious boardroom at the Mozilla office in Toronto, 25 girls experimented with writing code that would bring an animal to life on their laptops. The girls, who ranged in age from nine to 14, were taking part in a twist on Take Our Kids to Work day, aimed at empowering girls to become the next generation of software developers and designers.

The event at the Canadian headquarters of the software company was organized by Ladies Learning Code, which offers workshops in designing Web pages and developing other computer skills. Shortly after starting the group, director Laura Plant realized that encouraging tech career paths required targeting a younger demographic by showcasing role models and providing hands-on experience. So was born Girls Learning Code, which offers one-day workshops and summer camps.

"We're trying to position technology to girls in a way that helps them see it as a creative outlet, and something that can help them change the world," said Ms. Plant, a former technophobe and human-resources consultant who was encouraged by friends to experiment with technology.

On university campuses, women make up 60 per cent of those enrolled in life sciences, but 39 per cent of undergrads in math and physical sciences and only 17 per cent of undergraduates in engineering and computer science, according to data from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Efforts to attract high-school seniors to STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) come too late. Learning experts say it is crucial to reach girls before their enthusiasm wanes and they drop science and math courses which are optional in high school.

As girls grow up, they are socialized to believe that women are caring and empathetic, making careers that nurture others appealing; more abstract fields like math and physics do not seem as female friendly. Drawing women to these areas requires countering these perceptions.

"When girls think they want to contribute to society, they want to work with people. There are other things that probably say that more than physics," said Marie-Claire Shanahan, an associate professor of science education at the University of Alberta. "But physics is the basis of a lot of biomedical testing. Communicating about that hasn't been as successful as it should be." Then there is simple gender stereotyping: In a culture that prizes physical attractiveness, women in lab coats are not frequently depicted as role models.

"Whether it's obvious or not, there's still a picture in everybody's head of what a good scientist or what a good engineer looks like. And it's often not a pretty young woman. There's a responsibility among adults to show kids role models that reflect the reality, which is that there's lots of women in science," said Sandra Eix, vice-president of programs for the non-profit Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology.

Changing the culture and a girl's perception of appropriate careers is a long-term project. Establishing mentor relationships is one of the fastest and easiest ways to dispel myths and show young women that female scientists and engineers exist. "It's about having the capacity to identify with somebody, to aspire to what they've been able to achieve because suddenly you see you can do it," said Bonnie Schmidt, president of Let's Talk Science, a non-profit organization that engages young people in science.

Nicole Bowal is hoping that talking to female engineers will help with her career path. Three years ago, Ms. Bowal, who lives in Calgary, joined Cybermentor, which matches young girls with women who have chosen careers in math, science and engineering. The program was the brainchild of Elizabeth Cannon, former dean of engineering at the University of Calgary and now president of the institution.

Ms. Bowal, 16, heard of Cybermentor through one of her siblings, who is now studying chemical engineering at the University of Calgary. In the past two years, she has been linked with two undergraduate engineering students, and more recently is talking to Melanie Swanson, in Edmonton, who works in the telecommunications field.

Ms. Swanson hopes the young girl sticks with her decision to enter engineering. When Ms. Swanson attended school a couple of decades ago, there were only 10 girls in her engineering class of 100 – and the situation has barely changed.

"I want to get more girls involved in science and technology. We have a lot to offer," Ms. Swanson said. "We have different ideas. We have a different take on life. And I want to see that mentality around engineering change."

Still, the process is challenging. Elisa Patel, 14, who participated in Girls Learning Code, was more interested in becoming a doctor, and finding a cure for cancer. Why did she come? "I don't really know a lot about it [technology], so I want to learn some new things," she said.

That gives Ms. Plant hope. "[Technology] was not positioned to me in a way that was attractive to me. I think that is the biggest part of the problem, and why there are fewer women than men getting into the field of technology," she said. "We're trying to be pro-active and connect with young girls to help get them excited about technology and feel confident with it."

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