OTTAWA, ON, Feb. 7, 2021 /CNW/ – This Thursday, February 11, marks International Women and Girls in Science Day. In recognition of this important day, I would like acknowledge the significant presence and efforts of women in STEM fields across Canada, who are contributing to Canada’s COVID-19 response.
Every day, working alongside colleagues at the federal, provincial, territorial and local levels, I am reminded of the depth of scientific talent and expertise we have in Canada. And while medical science has been front and centre in the response to COVID-19, women scientists from across the STEM disciplines – including the health and social sciences – have played powerful roles working, researching, and repurposing their skills and resources to assist in Canada’s response against COVID-19.
Canada is setting an example worldwide for women’s representation in science and health leadership during the pandemic. In engineering, women are designing and making personal protective equipment for frontline workers, sustaining essential municipal services, supporting the telecommunications network that keeps us connected virtually, and adapting university programs to remain on track. Women are also contributing in the technology field – from digital health experts developing technology to track viral spread to tech start-up founders who are rapidly coming up with innovative technologies that can assist us all during COVID-19 and beyond. We also have women mathematicians and epidemiologists working on complex disease modelling, and women scientists – including genomic experts, cellular and molecular biologists, immunologists, infectious disease specialists and biochemists are all conducting valuable COVID-19 -related research in their respective fields. Women in the social sciences are also playing a critical role by helping policy makers to understand the impact and unintended consequences of public health interventions, contributing insights on the best ways to deliver and communicate about vaccination programs, and ensuring that the voices of those most affected by COVID-19 are represented in the development of policies and programs.
Persistent Barriers for Women in STEM: The Glass Obstacle Course
While the pandemic has helped to highlight many of these remarkable women and their important contributions on the COVID-19 front, it has also raised awareness around the gender disparities and barriers that persist for women and girls across the STEM fields.
Over the past few decades, it has been encouraging to see the headway made by women pursuing careers in the health and social sciences. However, in many other STEM disciplines, women remain underrepresented, and minority women, even more so. Today, women are still less likely to choose a career in STEM than other fields, and those who do are more likely to pursue a degree in biology or other sciences – as opposed to mathematics, engineering or computer science.
This is not a matter of performance – on the contrary, Statistics Canada data indicates that women with higher mathematical ability are less likely to go into STEM fields than men with lower mathematical ability. Rather, women’s underrepresentation in STEM is due to a range of barriers that have persisted over the years in these fields, which have been historically male-dominated. These barriers are collectively described by some researchers as a “glass obstacle course” – all the formal and informal barriers encountered at every turn in women’s careers, from elementary school to post-secondary education, to field and lab work, and tenure and grant applications. This includes gender discrimination – a barrier even greater for minority women to overcome, as they face the intersectional effects of racism and sexism, as well as barriers due to child rearing and the gendered division of childcare and domestic responsibilities.
These challenges have also resulted in fewer women role models for young girls starting in STEM, despite all the diverse contributions that women in STEM have made.
Impact of COVID-19 – Amplification of Inequities
The pandemic has amplified these inequities, and made these barriers that much more difficult for women in STEM to overcome. In the academic setting, women are leading fewer COVID-19-related clinical trials and are submitting fewer publications to preprint servers (online archive and distribution services for scientific manuscripts that have not yet been peer-reviewed). This effect is most pronounced for junior researchers in earlier phases of their careers – a time when even a small setback could be detrimental in terms of their long-term careers and research.
Importantly, a decrease in women-led research also means that issues relevant to women will tend to be under-studied and that study data will be less likely to be broken down by gender and sex. This may create significant gaps in our understanding of women’s health issues. Fortunately, policies such as the Government of Canada’s Health Portfolio Sex- and Gender-Based Analysis Policy and the Tri-Council Policy Statement on Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans which underscore the importance of integrating sex and gender into health research, can help to guard against these impacts.
Many women scientists are also speaking out about their struggles to manage their careers and care for their families, and the toll it is taking on them emotionally. These are difficult stories to hear and are not limited only to the academic sphere. I am also hearing them first-hand from women colleagues, staff, and Canadians across the country. Women responding to the pandemic – be they front-line health workers, essential service workers, or those working from home – are often working long hours while juggling family and other demands. Their dedication to their work is incredible. However, I know that personal sacrifices often lie behind this dedication and it pushes me to do the very best I can to honour their efforts.
Supporting Women and Girls in STEM and Addressing Inequities
It is important that we start considering ways to mitigate the impacts that COVID-19 has had on women in STEM and to ensure diverse participation in these fields in the future. A critical first step is engaging in open conversations within communities and institutions to acknowledge that gender inequities in STEM have intensified due to COVID-19. In addition, institutions should consider ways to address the structural barriers that discourage women from pursuing careers in STEM. These include strategies to improve recruitment, development and retention processes of women – particularly diverse women – as well as policies that promote gender equality and foster inclusive workplaces.
Celebrating the achievements of women and girls is also critical. In Canada, we have many great women scientists who are trailblazers in their fields and role models for generations of women and girls. Scientists like Dr. Donna Strickland, the 2018 Nobel Prize recipient and an optical physicist and pioneer in the field of pulsed lasers; Dr. Rose Johnstone, the biochemist who discovered exosomes – tiny bubbles released by cells that move proteins and other genetic materials from one cell to another; and, Dr. Brenda Milner, the neuropsychologist who is sometimes referred to as the “founder of neuropsychology”. These women are but a few in a very impressive and growing national repertoire of women and girls in STEM.
So today, I would ask all of you to take a moment to reach out to a girl or a woman that you know who is in a STEM program or occupation to celebrate their accomplishments. Send them a message of recognition and support for the work they are doing. Encourage them to keep feeding their scientific curiosity, pursuing their interests, and working towards their goals!
To all women and girls in STEM, I recognize that school, work and many other aspects of life may be a little more difficult now but I want to encourage you to carry on with the important work you are doing. In the words of another remarkable woman scientist, the neurologist and Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, who experienced her share of hardships along the way, particularly as a Jewish woman studying and researching in Italy during World War II; “above all, don’t fear difficult moments. The best comes from them“.
I strongly believe Dr. Levi-Montalcini’s advice holds true for women and girls in STEM today. What we are experiencing now, though it may not be easy, has shone a spotlight on the persistent inequities women in STEM face and the importance of developing solutions that take into account our lived experiences. To see the change we all hope to see will take a concerted effort. However, together, we can do great things.