03/19/2018 16:14 EDT | Updated 03/19/2018 16:14 EDT

It’s Time To Move Beyond Talking About Women In STEM

We need to tackle this underrepresentation directly, and from a young age, because we want women to know that science and math is a place for them.

Throughout my education, I was often the only woman in the room. I shared my classes with mostly men. My instructors? Mostly men.

I didn't think of it as a problem, it was just a fact. But if you put something unusual in front of a scientific mind, it can't resist the urge to find a solution.

The earliest influences in my life sparked my interest in science. I was homeschooled by my mother, who had a physics degree, and my father, who was a software engineer. My parents were persistent.

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I remember hating math for a time, yet my mother pushed me to work at it for an entire year. Eventually, it clicked. And I began to recognize and appreciate scientific approaches as well as my own curiosity that at a young age led me to imagine a future career as a veterinarian, a scientist or an astronaut.

By the time I entered undergrad, I was determined to major in physics, which is where I stumbled across the fascinating world of computer coding. I became especially enamored with the potential of quantum computing — the ability to solve complex problems much faster than normal computers — and the excitement of solving a big puzzle.

I followed my passion through to post-doctoral research and all the way to the University of Waterloo's Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) where I am an assistant professor today.

During my training, I noticed the dearth of women sharing my lab spaces. I wondered why I was the only female speaker at a week-long academic conference. But, of course, my experience was far from unusual.

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While nearly 60 per cent of university graduates in Canada are female, less than 40 per cent of those women graduate with math and science degrees. Only 22 per cent of all Canadians working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) are women.

Now is a great time to recommit ourselves to making these important fields welcoming ones for young women.

A few weeks ago, I participated in an event with girls in Grades 7 and 8 to encourage the next generation of girls to pursue careers in science. It was exciting to see so many girls interested in science and to have a venue to share that interest. I found myself thinking about their potential and how it could be channeled into new research to drive the next generation of scientific progress.

We need to inspire and engage girls to choose scientific careers by pursuing post-secondary study in science. This can be a daunting task and finding a solution that solves the problem all at once is impossible, but it's time to move beyond just talking about women in STEM. It's time to find practical ways to move forward.

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For example, I recently attended IQC's annual Quantum Innovators' conference, which has pushed for equal representation of men and women. As a result, it is an event that feels noticeably different, and noticeably more inclusive.

To reach gender balance in STEM subjects, Canada's schools, labs and universities need to take similar proactive steps. This isn't just about having more women in labs or working in engineering firms. It's about expanding our best talent.

We need parents to take their daughters to science exhibits and register them in science-related programming. We need academic institutions to implement policies to support the goal of gender parity in their hiring practices. We need to continue to work with local schools to create mentorship programs for young students.

We need to tackle this underrepresentation directly, and from a young age, because we want women to know that science and math is a place for them. Canada and the world will only benefit from having greater diversity in scientific fields.

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