Training fields

It’s a win-win situation with more women working in STEM fields

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February 11 is the United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a reminder that science and gender equality matter.

It is a day to assess our progress and determine how we could further improve the lives and prospects of women and girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

The same day also marks the two-year anniversary of the World Health Organization’s designation of a novel coronavirus disease as COVID-19. The devastating pandemic, according to a UN Guidance Noteonly worsened the prospects for gender equity.

As we seek to secure well-being and prosperity beyond the pandemic, we must renew our commitment to ensuring gender equality in STEM and beyond.

We know that gender balance in STEM is crucial. A research study 2018 highlighted three of the main reasons:

First, studies show that considering gender differences in research studies is vital to our health.

Second, women bring unique perspectives and ideas to STEM research. As an aspect of diversity, gender equality means taking into account the full range of expertise and perspectives available to us.

Third, we simply need more STEM researchers to meet our societal and economic needs. The stymied opportunities for women and girls – half of our population – effectively reduce opportunities for all of us.

Gender equality is important for accurate and impactful scientific research – yet, nearly two years into the global pandemic, the outlook for women and girls is decidedly mixed.

In many cases, COVID-19 has revealed and exacerbated existing gender disparities in science and society.

I need not look far for examples. Three STEM researchers from my own university shared such experiences.

A PhD student in epidemiology has tracked the early spread of the virus while working from home and supporting her children’s learning. Yet she felt guilty for having to share her time and attention.

An environmental science professor analyzed strategies for reopening schools and businesses during the pandemic. She is happy that her modeling has helped manage COVID-19. But she worries about her female colleagues – especially early-career scientists – as studies show a sharp drop in paper submissions by women to journals during the pandemic.

Another professor has developed mathematical models to evaluate COVID-19 tests. She says that we have come a long way in fostering women’s participation in science, she believes there is still an unspoken bias against women in scientific fields, especially those of childbearing age.

Their experiences touch me. Long before the pandemic, as a researcher in the automotive sector, I distinguished myself as much by who I was (a woman in a male-dominated field) as by the results of my studies.

Today, as a university president and advocate for gender equity, I have the opportunity and the responsibility to use my position to effect change.

As we train, nurture and mentor the next generation of STEM leaders – students, instructors, researchers – universities are essential to help level the playing field.

But collectively, we must do more to identify and dismantle systemic barriers to participation in our institutions and in society at large. Until we address and correct them, the playing field for girls and women in STEM education and careers will never level.

COVID-19 has threatened progress towards improving the lives of women and girls. As we celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we must recommit to change and progress. Ensuring gender equality and encouraging more women to pursue careers in science can help us all face our common challenges, pandemics and otherwise.

Charlotte Yates is President of the University of Guelph and a leading researcher in the areas of the Canadian automotive industry, labor and employment markets, and women, work and family.

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