Encouraging women to choose science, technology, engineering and math

Tuesday, September 26, 2017
by Feridun Hamdullahpur

This column also appears on the Insight page of today’s Waterloo Region Record.

Feridun Hamdullaphur and other delegates at the UN

Feridun Hamdullahpur (third from the left) at the UN Women’s HeForShe IMPACT 10X10X10 Parity Report unveiling in New York City.

Even though it’s been more than 100 years since the first Canadian province extended women the right to vote, we still struggle with gender equality.

And while Canada has made more progress than many other nations, we see the consequences of inequality in our businesses, government institutions and our schools.

Alongside last week’s United Nations General Assembly in New York, a group of 30 heads of government, corporate leaders and university presidents met to reflect on the world’s successful gender equality initiatives as well as how much more we have to do to reach true equality.

Representing the University of Waterloo as the UN Women’s HeForShe IMPACT 10X10X10 Parity Report was unveiled, I was inspired by my colleagues’ determination to find solutions to the inequality that exists in so many areas of the world.

Far from a simple concept of fairness, addressing gender equality is integral to the future of our nation, its people and our economic wellbeing.

Business leaders in Canada and abroad tell us that we are suffering from a shortage of talent, and yet women are still underrepresented in growing employment fields, in particular in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).

In addition to the fact that excluding women from STEM does nothing to help create the kind of society we want to live in, it is also a terrible waste of talent.

Those who identify as women have been discouraged from pursuing or choose to avoid STEM careers for far too long. If we don’t take action to change this now, Canada will fall behind while other countries maximize their STEM talent. Only by harnessing the potential of ALL our best and brightest will Canada compete in a new economy, including in the areas of advanced manufacturing, artificial intelligence and next generation computing.

Women’s post-secondary enrollment rates in these areas still lag behind men’s. This needs to change, and universities can demonstrate leadership.

The University of Waterloo has undertaken substantial efforts to increase female enrollment in these areas. We are participating in the UN Women’s HeForShe initiative, with scholarships encouraging more women to enter STEM and by continuing to foster a culture of inclusion, equality and unity on our campuses.

It’s why we hold events such as “Physics: Girls Matter” event, which encourages girls in grades seven and eight to pursue science, and annual camps for young Indigenous women that combine STEM workshops and cultural practices.

We see the success of our outreach activities in our most diverse first-year engineering class ever, with 30 per cent women. I’m confident this approach can work at other universities as well.

Waterloo’s determination to attract the best and brightest led us to strengthen our commitment to the UN Women’s HeForShe initiative, principles and the good work that governments, companies and universities from across the world have put into it.

As the most effective ideas of HeForShe spread, we can expect more women to pursue their dreams with equal opportunity, encouragement, openness and support.

We can expect to see the benefits of these efforts extend to our homes, our schools, our businesses, our governments and our economy.

Everything we do now to encourage women to enter male-dominated fields will have a long-term effect on the numbers of women entering undergraduate programs, taking on jobs previously thought to be unattainable and ultimately reaching leadership positions. 

By taking a positive approach and encouraging more women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, Canada can succeed in a competitive, global, knowledge economy.

This is an ambitious goal, but one we can reach it if we all work together.