Women in science and technology celebrated at Big Dream screening

“I think it’s important that people send out the message that this is something girls can do too.”

A documentary screening last weekend provided a space for women to share their experiences and to encourage more women to pursue careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

On Saturday afternoon, a documentary called Big Dream brought out a crowd that nearly filled the 120-seat auditorium in Dalhousie University’s computer science building. The documentary is about seven women across the globe who are pursuing careers in STEM.

The screening was hosted by WISEatlantic, Mount Saint Vincent University, Atlantic Association for Research in the Mathematical Sciences and Dalhousie’s Faculty of Computer Science.

The event was an oddity in the technology community because women made up at least half the crowd. Usually there’s only three or four women at technology events, says Emily Boucher, who directs research and marketing at Digital Nova Scotia.

Women are drastically underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). For example, during the 2013-14 school year in Nova Scotia, only 22 per cent of architecture and engineering students were women. Similarly, only 27 per cent of students in mathematics, computer science and information sciences were women, according to the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission.

Lack of role models

Nur Zincir-Heywood, a computer science professor at Dalhousie, says that a reason women are so underrepresented is that there aren’t many women role models in STEM fields.

“This is where the misunderstanding starts because if there’s no role models, [women] don’t know exactly what to expect, what’s going to happen, or what it looks like,” says Zincir-Heywood.

“[Women] shouldn’t feel shy to go, talk, and ask. And we, the women in the STEM fields, should do our part and be accessible so both sides can find each other. We can take it from there.”

The importance of early development

Zincir-Heywood says that one of the biggest obstacles is that often women don’t view entering STEM as an option because there aren’t many corresponding subjects in junior high or high school.

Early engagement with STEM subjects is a huge factor in attracting women to these areas. A WISEatlantic survey from 2014 found that junior high students in STEM activities were 2.7 times more likely to consider a STEM career.

The WISEatlantic survey explores the career interests of junior high students.
The WISEatlantic survey compares the career interests of girls and boys in junior high (Courtesy of WISEaltantic).

Susana Somerton is a Grade 7 student who came to the documentary screening event. She is interested in technology and has attended robotics camps.

“At the camps I’ve gone to, I’ve been maybe one of three girls out of a 20-person camp so I think it’s important that people send out the message that this is something girls can do too,” says Somerton.

Dalhousie students also spoke about how their early exposure to science and technology led them to pursue degrees in STEM.

Mimi Cahill, a forth-year informatics student, recalled going to workshops about technology when she was eight years old. These workshops sparked her interest in entering the technology field a decade later.

“I think that was partially because I had such a good experience when I was young and told, ‘You can do this. Try it.’ It was an inclusive environment and then I decided that I’m going to do this, I can do this,” says Cahill.

Cahill says that people need to know that they don’t need a solid background in computers and technology before they begin their degree. She bought her first laptop the first week of university classes.

“Don’t expect that you need any prior knowledge. You can start fresh, like me, and you’ll be fine. You don’t need to know anything before, just a little math,” Cahill says.

 

Discouragement

Women spoke of discouragement as another barrier in STEM.

Susan Grandy is a software engineer for an American company but is based in Nova Scotia. She graduated from Dalhousie’s computer science program in 2010. Since then, her work has brought her to Seattle and India.

“Something someone said to me, which made me discouraged and lose my confidence, was that girls didn’t think the same way and therefore I wouldn’t make it through. What I’ve come to realize is that we have something unique to offer. We may not think identically but that’s actually a good thing,” says Grandy.

To the future

Grandy encourages women entering STEM to be persistent.

“All I can say is keep going because there were times when I thought I couldn’t do it  but there’s tutors and other things. The resources are there and I found the profs would help you whenever you needed help and just keep going,” Grandy says.

Brittany Kelly is the vice-president of Dalhousie’s Women in Technology Society (WiTS). She is in her last year of the computer science program at Dalhousie. She encourages women to look beyond the stereotypes of STEM.

“There’s a lot of opportunities to go and talk to people, go to conferences, and really get involved. There’s all sort of societies and a lot of the people in the different fields are very welcoming and everyone just wants to see everyone else succeed,” says Kelly.