This past week, leading up to International Women’s Day (today), the Canada Aviation and Space Museum tweeted about some Canadian women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs.
— Av & Space Museum (@avspacemuseum) March 7, 2013
— Av & Space Museum (@avspacemuseum) March 6, 2013
— Av & Space Museum (@avspacemuseum) March 5, 2013
While I don’t work in STEM myself, I feel strongly that girls should be encouraged to go into these fields. One of the best ways to do that is to make them aware of all the trailblazers who have gone before. Incidentally, this was the premise of last night’s episode of The Big Bang Theory. The joke was that the female scientists spoke to a classroom full of girls on the phone from Disneyland, where they were dressed as princesses and fighting over who got to be Cinderella.
I remember when Roberta Bondar went to space. I was in Grade 7 at the time. Because she was the first Canadian woman astronaut, it made the news and was talked about at school. Other than that, though, I didn’t hear a lot about women in STEM jobs growing up. My own mother was a teacher and then a librarian, and I credit her with my lifelong love of books and writing. Aunts, grandmothers, female friends of our family — if they worked outside the home, they were secretaries, hairdressers or store clerks.
I loved to read and write, but from a young age, I was also very interested in computers. I was good with them, too. I took programming in high school, and each year there were fewer and fewer girls in the class. In the most advanced class, there was just one other in a group of 20 students. And the teacher, a middle-aged man, definitely treated the two of us differently than the boys — in the handsy, borderline-inappropriate way that really discourages girls from doing things like staying after school for extra instruction.
When I got to university, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life yet. My school required first-year students to take at least two math/science credits and two arts/humanities credits. So I took the entry-level courses in algebra, computer science, English, film studies and women’s studies. I enjoyed comp sci, but again, there were very few young women in that room. And I was shy. I thought about taking more courses in my subsequent years, but I baulked at the idea of doing group projects with all men.
So in second year, I declared a combined major in English and women’s studies, and that’s the degree I got. Sexual politics weren’t the only reason for that choice, but they were a factor.
Setting aside the fact that I never actually went into a career related to my degree, I wonder if I would have had the courage to pursue comp sci if I had had different role models as a child, or if I had had better experiences in high school computer classes. (Not that the teachers were all pervy; just the one.)
One of my best friends is an actuary and very successful in her field, and she and I came from very similar backgrounds, right down to what our parents did for a living, and have similar minds (in my opinion; she might not agree with that). Why did she take her aptitude for math and statistics to its natural conclusion, while I didn’t? Was it the influence of one or more teachers in the K-12 years, determined by pure chance? Was it that she was involved in Girl Guides? Or was I just overly hung up on the gender of classmates, something that seems not to have bothered her?
All kids need to be encouraged to pursue whatever job they think they’d like and to be aware of all the different options. But girls, in particular, need to know that there are and have been many successful women in fields that are traditionally male dominated. As I said last week, I am so disheartened by the thought that any child would name a reality TV star as their role model, because in general, in my opinion, those people are not modelling values or behaviour that are good for society as a whole. Ditto for a large portion of entertainers. But brains? Innovation? Critical thinking? Environmental awareness? These are qualities we need, and need to promote, for the continued health and strength of our whole species.