Recap: March Girl Geek Dinner with Dr. Mary Wells

On Tuesday evening the KW girl geek crowd gathered at Symposium to learn about how we’ve been doing getting girls into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education streams, if things were ever any better, and what we’re aiming for in the future. There was also some really interesting discussion about factors influencing kids — from really young ages — and at what point, if there is one, we can no longer convince girls that tech is cool.

I won’t lie; the stats are fairly depressing, but they also give us a clear view of what needs work, and hints and when and how to do better. And hey, without clear data, we won’t know if we’re being successful or what still needs tweaking.

Starting off, we saw a breakdown of where girls enroll in university (for 2008-2009), with the Arts and Humanities way out in front, followed by Business and Health Sciences. Engineering is 11th on the list of 24 faculties, and Computer Sciences are dead last.

For males in the same period, the top three are Business, Engineering, and Arts and Humanities, with Computer Sciences coming in 7th.

The year of highest enrolment for women in Engineering in Canada was 2001, but even then it was only a bit over 20%. By 2010 we were back down to about 17%. Of the types of engineering women enrolled in (in Canada), the top three were Biosystems, Environmental, and Chemical, again with Computer coming last at under 10%. At University of Waterloo for 2012, the top three types of engineering in which women enrolled were Mechatronics, Software, and Mechanical. (We did not see any stats about percentages of women graduating in engineering disciplines or pursuing graduate studies in STEM.)

Despite the creation of the Women in Computer Science group at University of Waterloo in 2007, female enrolment in that faculty continues to be low, under 15%.

So why are these numbers so low? Why do women choose other disciplines, and at what age does that switch flip in their brains and STEM careers become “for boys”? The answer appears to be early, really early. By middle school there are perceptions of engineers as solitary individuals, working with tools rather than people, and “fixing” rather than “helping”. The nerdy and gender-specific stereotypes are in play by then as well. If you can’t identify yourself with a career or specific expertise, or, worse, if you associate it with negative stereotypes, it’s unlikely you’re going to consider pursuing it.

Teachers and parents also play an incredibly important role in forming the impressions kids have about STEM. Often without realizing, they give subtle but powerful cues, like obviously not being a fan of teaching math, or second-guessing a child’s interest in pursuing engineering (usually if the child is a girl). Let’s face it, being a woman in one of these male-dominated fields will be challenging enough; we need as much enthusiasm and positive norms as we can get.

An exception to these impressions can exist if girls have role models — especially women — in STEM careers. If those role models are parents (ideally both parents) or other close family members, so much the better. One discussion topic in the Q&A also addressed the influence of “princess culture” and the like these days, where the focus tends to be far more on looking good and relying on one’s prince rather than doing anything. (Rapunzel and her frying pan aren’t quite enough to save us…)

So, how do we fix this situation? How do we counteract pink and sparkly media stereotypes and give STEM education and careers a makeover so that it’s cool to be smart and techie from a young age all the way through university? How do we even out the gender gap in engineering and tech and dissolve the intimidation of the field’s male dominance?

We start early and keep working with girls from public school into university and beyond. We help them learn how powerful it is to feel smart, creative, and capable. We provide them with role models in women doing really “cool shit”, as Linda Carson put it. Women who they can identify with, who are not antisocial nerds just working with tools. Women who are building things, fixing things, helping people, and changing the world.

At the University of Waterloo (one of the world’s best STEM-centric universities), overall there is the WE-Connect program (the “WE” standing for Waterloo Engineering), and under that umbrella there are programs like Engineering Science Quest camps, the Women in Engineering group, and Engineering Explorations outreach.

Additional programs that the University sponsors and hosts include FIRST Robotics (the competition for which took place this weekend and was mind-blowing), and the fairly new CATALYST conference for girls in Grade 11.

There are Engineering Science Quest camps and workshops for Grades 1-9, an Engineering Badge Day for Girl Guides (Grades 4-6), and GoEngGirl (Grades 7-10).

And, of course, there are people like Dr. Wells herself, who is Associate Dean of Outreach for the Faculty of Engineering, and her staffer, Margaret, who are out in the world and in schools, talking to students — girls especially — answering questions and showing them what kinds of people work in STEM, and the amazing variety of careers there are (not just driving trains or nerds in front of computer screens).

The types of attendees at the Girl Geek Dinner are probably a bit ahead of the curve of the general population. We already work in tech, and so our sisters, daughters, nieces, etc. will observe us just doing it. And potentially we will have given them a genetic predisposition toward technical interests and curiosities. But like any other marketing campaign (and this is a campaign — a rather long-term one), we need to be aware both of our overt efforts and the implicit messages we send, no matter what disciplines we pursue.

Make STEM cool and “normal” for any gender, and watch those sad stats shoot upward.

PowerPoint slides: Girl Geek Dinner: Dr. Mary Wells – “Girls” in Engineering and Technology – Who’s Enrolling?