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Encouraging women in STEM fields

Parents, teachers and peers are unintentionally pushing young girls away from taking courses in the “STEM” field – science, technology, engineering and math – based on biases.

“The myths include: if you are creative, science is not for you; boys are better at math; girls and technology don’t mix; girls want helping careers such as nursing or teaching, and STEM jobs don’t provide this opportunity for girls,” says Dr. Tamara Franz-Odendaal.

Franz-Odenaal, an associate professor in biology at Mount Saint Vincent University, spoke to a small gathering Wednesday night at the at the Halifax Central Library to discuss the myths confronting girls who are enrolled (or thinking about enrolling) in science programs.

The talk discussed common qualms girls have about taking science, technology, engineering or math courses and provided tips on how to guide girls into these programs and to support them while making their decisions.

According to Statistics Canada, 23 per cent of women are still unrepresented in STEM fields. 39 per cent of women graduate university with a STEM degree compared to the approximately 60 per cent of men who are more likely to enter a STEM career.

“The Women in Science and Engineering Atlantic program is primarily engaged in inspiring youth to consider science, technology, engineering and math careers and making girls aware of the diversity of jobs that exists within these fields,” says Franz-Odendaal.

Other myths include that STEM jobs are off-limits to girls who want to have children, technology courses are considered boring for girls, and “STEM jobs are only for geeks.”

Franz-Odendaal wants to prove these myths wrong, and suggests that parents, teachers and peers should support girls who are showing an interest in the science fields and to help them along the way.

“This can be done by encouraging girls to take courses in the sciences, technology or math during high school or at university, helping them when they start having difficulties in their STEM courses instead of telling them to drop the course,” she said. ”

Sally Marchand, program coordinator at Women in Science and Engineering Atlantic Region, and co-leader of the discussion, said girls need female role models so they can see that the STEM field offers viable careers.

“Natural Sciences and Engineering Research is the national funding agency for all science, engineering and technology research in Canada and is committed to increasing the participation of women in science and engineering, and to provide role models for women active in, and considering, careers in these fields,” says Marchand.

She adds that the goal is to end all stereotypes that STEM careers are only for men and to involve more women.

“We have to start somewhere, so start discussing these sort of things with your daughters or family members,” says Franz-Odendaal.

”Discuss expectations that are held in the STEM careers, encourage open minds and stop the stereotype that is occurring, because we need more women entering STEM careers.”


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