It was my first day of grade 10 at my new high school. Amongst the sea of students, I set out to my second period computer science class. The closer I got, the quieter and more sparser the hallways became. It was a grade 11 class and I’d decided to take it to explore a field I knew very little about, yet was increasingly becoming foundational to the world.
The moment I walked in, something struck me as odd. There were no girls in my class, expect for me. In my entire educational journey, I had not been in such a situation before. Ever the questioner, I asked my teacher about it. Was this ratio of boys to girls normal in a computer science class? Had it always been like this? Most importantly, I wanted to know why.
That course was the most difficult one I took in grade 10. I had to wire my brain to think in terms of systems and programs and learn to speak in code expressing booleans, loops and conditionals. The combination of math, logic and technology was mind blowing and I sought to share this enrichment with everyone I knew, from explaining to my friends how their laptops worked to detailing a roadblock in my code to new people I met. My deepening interest in computer science only made me more curious, why were more girls not in my class?
Unfortunately, this reality goes beyond my class and is known as the gender gap in STEM, seen most prominently in computer science, math and engineering. According to Statistics Canada, women compromise only 19% of engineering undergraduate programs and 16%, in computer and information sciences (Wall 2019). This significant underrepresentation of females in STEM is worrisome for many reasons. For one, the demand for computer science is greater than ever before, but without gender equality in technology, not all of us, including many women, will be able to share in these bright career opportunities. Furthermore, STEM is forwarded when we have people of diverse backgrounds developing ideas together, and better applied when the communities STEM solutions are for, are a part of designing them.
So, on this International Day of Girl, we must ask ourselves, as global citizens and members of the scientific community, how do we address the gender gap in STEM? A starting point is providing girls a positive learning environment in which to explore STEM and opportunities to advance their learning in the real world, like mentorship with principal research investigators at a university (as a former student researcher this did wonders for me!). Beyond equal opportunities, we must also reflect on how we raise our girls. As a society we tend to impose gender norms on girls, that demand of us to be perfect, instead of experiment and take risks. Yet, a fundamental lesson I have learnt from computer science is risk taking and failure are important parts of the learning process. They provide moments of reflection and teach persistence, which is crucial to any life adventure. Reshma Saujani, the founder of and CEO of Girls Who Code, sums it up best when she says we must teach our girls to brave, not perfect. Lastly, celebrating women in STEM, so all girls see themselves represented and have role models is important. As a Schulich Leader, I am grateful to have met many other young women in the Schulich Leader Network, who are passionate about STEM and pushing the boundaries in engineering, science, innovation and discovery. They inspire me endlessly.
As for me, my journey in computer science began in grade 10. That year, I went on to take the grade 12 computer science class offered at my school and continued taking classes in university, I’m currently learning how to operate in LINUX. Computer science has opened a world of opportunity for me, enriched me as a thinker and taught me important life lessons. I want to ensure every student in this country and beyond, gets to share in this learning, so that future computer science classrooms have students of all backgrounds, including girls. Because we belong in STEM too.
Wall, K. (2019). Persistence and representation of women in STEM programs. Insights on Canadian Society. [online] Available at: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/75-006-x/2019001/article/00006-eng.htm [Accessed 27 Sep. 2019].