The numbers are sobering. While women represent the majority of young university graduates, their share of graduates in the science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science (STEM) field remains disproportionate.
Women, according to 2011 National Household Survey, account for 33 per cent of university graduates aged 25 to 34 in STEM programs, compared with 66 per cent of university graduates in non-STEM programs.
To be fair – these figures are changing in favour of more equality, but plenty of work remains for the likes of Andrea Chan, president of the Advancement of Young Scientists (SAYS), which recently hosted the 57th annual Vancouver Island Regional Science Fair.
Chan says more women will participate in STEM if the public becomes more aware of women in the related fields.
“Our generation needs to be aware of females who have invented or done unbelievable projects in STEM,” she said. “We all know about Alexander Graham Bell who invented the telephone, and Albert Einstein who influenced physics. But what about Marie Curie who discovered elements on the periodic table, or Caroline Herschel who was an iconic astronomer that discovered comets?”
In this context, Chan highlights the importance of mentors. “Any female in a STEM-related role can lead the efforts in female participation in STEM,” she said. “Females are role models and need to influence young women positively in science. We all need to take the initiative to encourage and empower girls and young women to pursue STEM. This encouragement will lead females to create and challenge their own scientific inquiries.”
This mentorship has no best-before or best-after point. “There is no specific time to encourage female participation in STEM,” she said. “We all, male and female mentors, should be encouraging participation as much as possible. There is so much science all around us, and many possibilities to encourage females into pursuing science.”
But it is not just about encouraging female participation in STEM. It is also creating opportunities through events like science fairs.
“I know that it can be difficult to find help or mentors for science fair projects,” she said. “In my experience, it was difficult to find people that related to my field of study. SAYS has alumni who have gone to the Canada Wide Science Fair [three] times and more, that are always available to help with resources and project details.” For more information, see www.virsf.ca.
The journey of Chan into STEM started in Grade 9, when she participated in her first regional science fair with a psychology project that studied which font size and margins were the most effective for reading among students in Grades 1 and 3.
She placed fifth, a finish that advanced her to the Canada Wide Science Fair, which exposed her to STEM-related activities and network opportunities with like-minded students. Overall, she participated in the Canada Wide Science Fair four times, winning three medals – two bronze and one gold.
“My last year was an engineering project, which was creating fingertips with grip for a 3D prosthetic arm,” she said. “The last project allowed me to work with the Victoria Hand Project, a group based out of a University of Victoria engineering lab, and it was definitely a learning curve from psychology to engineering.”
Following graduation from high school, Chan immediately involved herself in SAYS, joined the society and became its president two years later.
Chan is now studying to be a science teacher in doing her part to create more role models.