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05/30/2018 10:59 EDT | Updated 05/31/2018 16:21 EDT

Forget 'Pretty' — Teach Girls They're Smart Like Mommy Instead

There are too many women who did not enter STEM fields because they believed, or were led to believe, STEM fields were not appropriate for them.

Girl and her mother doing scientific experiment
AleksandarNakic via Getty Images
Girl and her mother doing scientific experiment

Canada's Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan made headlines recently when she expressed frustration over the lack of gender parity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields. In 1987, women occupied only 20 per cent of STEM positions – more than 30 years later that number has only inched up to 22 per cent. What has gone so abysmally wrong?

A few years ago, I saw a child walking with a T-shirt that said, "smart like daddy and pretty like mommy." To me, it is the ubiquitous sentiment expressed in that T-shirt that is partly the reason why women have lagged behind in STEM.

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Of course, I am not a sociologist — I am a biotissue engineer. My area of focus is on the development of human tissue from stem cells that can enhance drug testing and help discover better and more effective drugs and service models of disease. While I cannot imagine doing anything else, this incredibly rewarding field of practice has proven a challenge for women scientists, and the lack of government action on this issue has exacerbated the problem.

Women face greater barriers when pursuing, entering and advancing in STEM fields. Prescriptive gender norms that prevent women from even considering the viability of STEM careers persist today. Girls are still implicitly learning that math and sciences are "too hard" or "not fun" for them. Even though it is 2018, women still do most of the unpaid care work in our society — including the care of home and children. STEM careers can be extremely demanding — professional demands combined with caregiving responsibilities can be incredibly difficult to manage and often serve as barriers for women entering, and advancing, in STEM fields.

Girls are still implicitly learning that math and sciences are "too hard" or "not fun" for them.

Women in positions of authority are evaluated more harshly and at times unfairly — more so than their male counterparts. I am often thinking about how to say certain things in a manner where I do not come across as too forceful, or in a manner where I am not perceived in a certain light, and these emotional considerations can be taxing after a while.

So STEM fields can be difficult for anyone but especially for women. Having said that, I believe anyone can become anything they wish to be on this planet given the right circumstances. There are too many women who did not enter STEM fields because they believed, or were led to believe, STEM fields were not appropriate for them. It is so sad to think there were generations of women who did not reach their full potential because they were told women could not, or should not, be scientists.

I fundamentally disagree with this! Fields should not be gendered or racialized. Babies are born with unlimited potential; it is up to us as a society to support them into becoming adults that feel empowered to pursue any path. Ultimately, our society will be more productive and better if everyone is empowered to contribute to their maximum potential.

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To this end, we need to cultivate greater diversity and interest in STEM fields, especially among young girls. There is a strong moral and economic imperative to do so. This requires creating more supportive environments for women researchers in STEM and giving them opportunities to balance competing professional and family demands. This also requires encouraging young girls to develop an interest in STEM fields by creating spaces where girls can explore math and science without judgement. Safe spaces are ones where girls can have their interests positively reinforced and where instructors validate the ideas of girls. I believe this is how we foster a new generation of women scientists in Canada.

I am optimistic that with greater government awareness about this issue, and greater funding to take action, gaps in science will narrow. The recent announcement to increase 25% of STEM graduates in Ontario is a step in the right direction, but we need specific policies to encourage young women to pursue STEM fields and create research environments that retain and promote women scientists. Science is situated within a larger socio-political context and what we choose to invest in is a reflection of our values – and we should value women researchers and the contributions of women scientists.

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Ultimately, STEM fields can be incredibly rewarding for any researcher, trainee, or student. We are applying sophisticated tools to solve some incredible problems and using our imaginations along the way. It is a privilege to be doing this work, and I firmly believe any person – woman, man, trans, black, white, queer or whatever you may identify as – would benefit from being in this field. Greater diversity will help enrich our approach to solving some of the world's most pressing problems and teach girls that, they too, can be smart like mommy.

Dr. Milica Radisic is an award-winning engineer and researcher. She is the Canada Research Chair in Functional Cardiovascular Tissue Engineering at the University of Toronto's Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering (IBBME).On May 24, Dr. Radisic received the 2018 YWCA Toronto Women of Distinction Award. For more information about this fundraiser, please visit www.womenofdistinction.ca.

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