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Women in STEM. Overcoming the Barriers!

Tuesday 25 Apr 2017

Over the last century we have seen some major changes in the working world.  We have watched women fight to become equals in a male dominated world and win many battles to receive the rights we have today.  But the battle is not over, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, where women are still significantly underrepresented.

This post is about the challenges and triumphs that women, like me, face when entering into a trades and technology field and how we can encourage more of them to enter these fields.  As I describe some of these challenges, I will also tell you a bit of my own history and perspective, as a female entering into the technology world as a Biomedical Engineering Technologist.Teenage girl fixing robotics hand

What is stem and why is it important

STEM is the acronym that represents the field of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. 

So why is STEM so important in todays’ world?

  • Technology needs to continue innovating to keep up with demands for technology solutions to our challenges and problems and to feed our appetite for newer and faster gadgets.

  • Developing new infrastructure is required to maintain the growing population of cities, including the development of better transportation so that people can live their fast paced lifestyles.

  • As our population grows and ages, science and technology are at the forefront of developing new treatments, medications and services to keep us all healthy.

  • Mathematics is the language of STEM and of our economies, giving us control of our money, banking, investments, and ultimately the ability to support our families.         

Women in STEM

In recent years the lack of women in STEM has been publically recognized as a problem.  The cause of the problem is less clearly understood, with higher education institutions still struggling to entice women to enter these fields.  A few reasons for this struggle could be:

  •  Lack of female role models

  • Gender stereotypes

  • STEM jobs are not as family oriented as others

According to Stats Canada in 2011 most of all STEM degree holders were males with the exception of Science and technology degree holders, ages 25 to 34.  In the last 6 years these numbers have not changed much and in fact have trended downward.

How do we get more women into STEM?

Female Scientist
Image courtesy of jk1991 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There are a number of ways that we can attract more girls into STEM. 

  1. Offer a mentorship program.  Many young women who have complete a degree or diploma in a STEM field cannot find a job when they finished school.  I am one of these women.  I received a college diploma in biotechnology and applied for many jobs receiving only two interviews in the field.  In both cases the job went to someone with more experience.   It is very difficult to get experience today without already knowing someone in the field.  If colleges or universities partnered with a group of mentors, maybe more women graduating from STEM programs would continue on to be employed in STEM fields.  In the United States there is a program called “Million Women Mentors,” this program has women and men who are in a STEM field mentor young woman who are entering the field.  This gives the next generation a chance to get the experience needed to get a job.

  2.  Scholarship programs for women in untraditional programs are available now to help encourage women to enter the field. But maybe advertising these scholarships more broadly would help get the idea out there for more women to apply.

  3.  Some women may find it intimidating to study in a classroom of all men, especially young ladies who are new to college or university.  Taking courses online, like with GBCTechtraining  online programs, provides an alternative to entering the male dominated classroom and has in fact attracted a larger number of female students then most tech programs usually see.

  4. Start introducing girls at a younger age to STEM, to build their interest in technology based programs.  Having primary schools offering programs that encourage young girls to participate in activities like science clubs or computer programing camp may show them that there is more to the world than what society had told them is right for them, and that they can become a prominent member of a STEM field.  Growing up I loved to find out how things work.  I would take things apart and put them back together hoping to make them work better, everything from helping my mom fix things around the house or helping my Dad build a new BBQ.  My favorite time of school was going to the local high school to use the shop equipment and building using saws and power tools.   Young children are ready to be molded so why not use this time to encourage girls to get into an untraditional field before they have had time to absorb the bias of gender stereotypes.  Once a young girl becomes a teenager, these early experiences in math, science or technology will open them to move in the direction that will lead them to those fields. 

After many years of trying to ‘find’ myself after high school, trying different fields and never being truly happy I decided it was time to go back to my early love of fixing things. This was when I discovered the world of biomedical engineering which combined two loves, medicine and fixing things.  STEM has a long way to go to bridge the gender gap, but with a little work we could see an increasing number of women joining the ranks of all STEM fields.  I know that as I work my way into this wonderful new world, I will face struggles that I may not face in other fields.  To me, following a lifelong dream will make any issue just a small stepping stone that will make me a stronger person, and I know I will be able to achieve greatness in any field no matter that I am a women.

Author:  Melissa Bond

Melissa is currently studying Biomedical Engineering at a local Toronto community college.  In her coop work term position at GBC, she provides support to other staff and students in the GBCTechtraining programs.


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