Girls in STEM: Are they really just not interested?

December 5, 2012

Last week I accepted an award, on behalf of Actua, honouring our National Girls Program, fittingly at the Museum of Science and Technology. This honour comes just a week after our annual event with L’Oréal Canada and the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, where four inspirational women were presented with L’Oréal-UNESCO International Fellowships. I am pleased these programs have received some deserved media attention.

Many people are still surprised by the numbers and facts that drive events like these. Now twelve years into the new millenium, women are still underrepresented in many STEM careers and girls still hesitate to pursue the studies that will lead them to fascinating, high paying, meaningful jobs - especially in senior leadership positions.

Actua and its network of members at universities and colleges across Canada are among a community of leading thinkers and groups trying to make sense of why this remains the case. As a collective, we are continuing to deepen our understanding of why girls don’t think of themselves as top researchers, as engineers and as CEO’s.

It is not, as was asserted in a recent editorial in The Globe and Mail, because they “just don’t want to, or are just not interested.”

To accept this argument is to say that girls have no interest in being creative, solving problems, collaborating, experimenting, designing and building, and contributing to the development of new innovative products and services that make the world a better place.

It is our experience that once girls are exposed to the real relevance of STEM in their lives, and the lives of others, they are very interested. They are driven to achieve economic independence and career satisfaction. They seek the ability to contribute their critical thinking skills and talents to the innovation our country needs. They know that they are valued and will have an important role to play in adding to the diverse perspectives of our social and economic prosperity.

I will never forget a phone call I received when I was working as an undergraduate student at Actua’s member program in New Brunswick. The call was from a mother who was registering her son for our summer camp.  At the end of the call she said, “Now, I only wish you offered something for my daughter.”  It took me a minute to understand what she meant, and I was stunned. Little did she, or I for that matter, know what her well-intentioned comment would inspire.

I stand firmly behind Actua’s National Girls Program and all it represents. The program is designed to increase girls’ self-confidence and self-efficacy. It provides a positive on-campus university or college experience - one where the environment is safe and the curriculum is inspirational. Girls are introduced to science careers through hands-on experiences and exposure to real-life female role models and mentors. The aim is to encourage girls to want to pursue post-secondary studies. The program further dispels the stereotypes that far too often weigh down girls’ dreams to enter and rise in the ranks of science careers.

So, last night, while I was happy and proud to accept the award, I was thinking of the monumental amount of work still ahead of us. If sentiments like “maybe girls are just not interested” still prevail, we clearly have a challenge still to overcome. It is a personal passion of mine to deliver effective STEM programs that serve every girl in this country, regardless of her socio-economic situation, location, or ability. Actua is committed to offering our STEM programming that contributes to every girl’s economic independence and self-fulfillment and positions her to make a lasting and meaningful contribution to Canada’s future social and economic well-being. We will continue to do this until women are equally represented in all areas of STEM studies and careers.

It has been an interesting journey. But we are not done yet.