A look into the Missing Numbers and the Leaky Pipeline in Canada’s Innovation Agenda
By: Teddy Katz
A group of girls and women all connected to the award-winning summer enrichment and entrepreneurship program SHAD are calling for some drastic changes to help women become leaders in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math).
They say there are millions of dollars at stake for Canada if not.
They were all part of an expert panel today at the Canadian Science Policy Conference today in Ottawa.
Some of the panelists are still in high school including Emily Cross, who has won Canada-Wide Science Fair Awards for her research. (You can view the panel's slides!)
She says coming from Thunder Bay, it is difficult to find extracurricular STEM programs for youth in general but girls in particular. She says finding equipment to do research is also difficult.
But she says sometimes the worst part is dealing with stigmas and attitudes.
“I went into a hardware store this year for a science project looking for some materials and the attendant actually asked me if I was picking up something for my dad,” Cross says. She adds, “When I told him it was for me, he went and helped another customer.”
Cross’s message from that experience: girls need to know it’s ok and it’s their place too to get dirty. “Sticks and stones won’t break her bones. It can actually encourage her interest in science,” she told the audience.
Others on the panel lamented the lack of role models in STEM and talked about the notion, “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”
Bethel Samson is a grade 12 student in Ottawa, an Ethiopian Canadian and aspiring neurosurgeon. But when she was trying to see the path ahead of her and googled “who was the first Canadian female surgeon of colour” she found nothing came up.
“Often what hinders young women and minorities from living up to our full potential is being unable to see what we would like to become,” says Samson.
She knows the same is true for First Nations women, women in rural and remote parts of the country, and women in tech.
Today’s panel in front of policy makers in Ottawa called on the federal government to set up a national mentorship program designed specifically for marginalized groups and incentivizing the hiring of women in STEM related private companies.
The importance of mentorship was on display as well. Winnica Beltrano a second year student at the University of Calgary in Health and Biomedical Science has won multiple awards including the Terry Fox Humanitarian Award Scholar.
She says that came as a result of going to SHAD and shortly after receiving an internship in the lab of Melanie Martin, a Physics Professor at the University of Winnipeg who also went to SHAD in 1990.
“That gave me enormous confidence and showed me what was possible,” Beltrano says. After that, Dr. Martin encouraged me to apply for different research awards which I did. Girls need to know these awards exist and have the confidence they sometimes lack to go for them.”
Martin also now runs the University of Winnipeg’s Magnetic Resonance Microscopy Centre. Through her research, she is aiming to help diagnose Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and a range of other diseases faster and more accurately.
But when she looks ahead to the future right now for promising youth such as Beltrano, Martin is quick to say things need to change.
“There used to be a large number of grants and scholarships that helped women like me progress in STEM and stick it out to become professors. All of those grants have now gone by the wayside,” Martin says. “If we are truly interested in showing women they have a place in science and tech and can reach for the top in STEM, we need to reinstate these grants right away.”
Another panel member Paulina Cameron is a Director at Futurpreneur Canada that helps start-up entrepreneurs. She says while Canada is often seen as a global leader in women’s equality, a small percentage of venture capital goes to women and there are few female CEO’s.
Worst still Cameron says women will likely leave the country looking for opportunities if something isn’t done and there is a bigger cost.
She points to a recent study by McKinsey and Company that concluded that Canada could add $150 billion in incremental Gross Domestic Product in 2026 by advancing women’s equality.
“This isn’t just good economics, encouraging women to reach their potential means more life changing companies and innovations. “ She says, “How could we not put everything we have behind this.”