OTTAWA — International Women and Girls in Science Day is today (Feb. 11) and in recognition Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam acknowledged the significant presence and efforts of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields across Canada, who are contributing to Canada’s COVID-19 response.
“In engineering, women are designing and making personal protective equipment for frontline workers, sustaining essential municipal services, supporting the telecommunications network that keeps us connected virtually, and adapting university programs to remain on track,” reads a statement. “Women are also contributing in the technology field – from digital health experts developing technology to track viral spread to tech start-up founders who are rapidly coming up with innovative technologies that can assist us all during COVID-19 and beyond.”
While the pandemic has highlighted the contributions of women, it has also amplified inequities and raised awareness around the gender disparities and barriers that persist for women and girls across the STEM fields.
“In many other STEM disciplines, women remain underrepresented, and minority women, even more so,” Tam writes. “Today, women are still less likely to choose a career in STEM than other fields, and those who do are more likely to pursue a degree in biology or other sciences — as opposed to mathematics, engineering or computer science.”
Women’s underrepresentation in STEM is a result of a range of barriers that have persisted over the years in these fields, which have been historically male dominated.
“These barriers are collectively described by some researchers as a ‘glass obstacle course’ — all the formal and informal barriers encountered at every turn in women’s careers, from elementary school to post-secondary education, to field and lab work, and tenure and grant applications,” the statement indicates.
Despite the contributions women have made, there are fewer women role models for young girls starting in STEM as a result of the challenges.
Tam said she has heard from many women in different fields about the struggles they face to manage their career and care for their families.
“Women responding to the pandemic – be they front-line health workers, essential service workers, or those working from home – are often working long hours while juggling family and other demands,” she said.
It is important to start considering ways to mitigate the impacts that COVID-19 has had on women in STEM and to ensure diverse participation in these fields in the future, she added.
A critical first step is engaging in open conversations within communities and institutions to acknowledge that gender inequities in STEM have intensified due to COVID-19. In addition, institutions should consider ways to address the structural barriers that discourage women from pursuing careers in STEM.
These include strategies to improve recruitment, development and retention processes of women — particularly diverse women — as well as policies that promote gender equality and foster inclusive workplaces.
Celebrating the achievements of women and girls is also important.
“I would ask all of you to take a moment to reach out to a girl or a woman that you know who is in a STEM program or occupation to celebrate their accomplishments. Send them a message of recognition and support for the work they are doing. Encourage them to keep feeding their scientific curiosity, pursuing their interests, and working towards their goals.”