I was delighted to participate in discussions on supporting women in STEM in Canada House a few days ago, organised by Trade Commissioner Allison Goodings and with a colleague from Ryerson University, Dr Imogen Coe. Effectively there were two events, one was a small round table discussion over lunch, hosted by Janice Charette, Canada’s High Commissioner to the UK and involved people with a commitment to increasing gender equality in STEM subjects in both the UK and Canada, including Dr Mona Nemer, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor. The second event was a live streamed, large, open forum with the High Commissioner, Imogen Coe and me (after an introduction by the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell) having a conversation about encouraging girls into STEM subjects and recruiting and retaining women in STEM careers. I was happy to participate as these are subjects that are close to my heart.
The evening discussion was wide ranging, including why it is important to increase the participation of girls and women in STEM subjects and careers and what works to encourage girls into such subjects and importantly to both attract and retain women in STEM careers. There was a very lively audience that really responded well to our discussions and had lots of questions for us too! Some of the audience were school girls, their teachers and parents so we emphasised the importance of role models for girls and the very useful adage that ‘if you can see her, you can be her’.
Some of the key areas that Imogen and I highlighted were the importance of the STEM sectors to the economies of both the UK and Canada. There are estimates that the UK needs to double the number of engineering graduates by 2020 to meet the shortfall of skilled STEM workers that is currently holding back our economic growth. A further area we discussed was to highlight some of the benefits of studying STEM to girls, including how they can access careers that generally are much better paid when compared with many, more ‘typical’ jobs that women undertake. Although the STEM subjects are discussed together, effectively both Canada and the UK still have low numbers of girls studying physics, computer science and engineering late in their schooling and at university. Many regions in the UK, including South Wales, have too few boys and girls studying these subjects or continuing into higher education too.
A further point that was well emphasised at both the lunch workshop with the High Commissioner and in the evening discussion was the importance of having a supportive life partner so that girls and women can succeed. This is a strong way to enable both men and women to play active parts in household work and childcare, so that women can in turn succeed in the work environment and have rewarding careers too (‘don’t let the hand that you hold, hold you down’).
(l to r) Imogen Coe, High Commissioner Janice Charette and HLS.
During the questions from the audience we were asked on whether we supported quotas for women as one mechanism to drive up participation in some specific roles. Our answers emphasised using ‘expectations’ for the participation of women rather than quotas, as a helpful way to make change happen.
The day was a great platform to progress the shared commitment to gender equality across Canada and the UK and we’ll be following up specific initiatives such as Athena SWAN and sharing of best practice over the coming year too. I was pleased that Dr Imogen Coe and Eden Hennessey then visited us at Swansea University this week and really stimulated discussions with colleagues on our ‘next steps’ to increase equality, diversity and inclusivity. Part of our new campaign is how to ‘reach down’ and help others.
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