The rise of women in STEM
From rural India to Waterloo: how a woman's fearless pursuit of higher education led to an engineering professorship in Canada
From rural India to Waterloo: how a woman's fearless pursuit of higher education led to an engineering professorship in CanadaBy Kira Vermond University Communications
Back when she was 10 years old, Pampa Dey stood inside the sweet shop her father owned in a small, remote village on the eastern tip of India, and did what she did best: she calculated large and complicated numbers in her head.
As customers in Ranibandh chose their sweet desserts – 85 grams here, 220 grams there – Dey added up the sums. No calculator. No computer. Just a small girl with a quick and efficient mind.
"From my childhood, I was literally in love with mathematics. Give me a math problem and I’ll just do it,” says Dey, now 30.
Incredibly, that passion for sums eventually brought her to the University of Waterloo, where she scaled the heights of academia to earn her doctorate in civil engineering in 2017 for research on improving the performance of aluminum bridges.
Dey’s academic accomplishment is at play against a global gender inequality backdrop where millions of girls and women around the world face seemingly insurmountable barriers to getting an education, particularly one that leads to a career in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Consider the statistics. According to UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report, 131 million girls worldwide were out of school in 2015. Of the 32 million girls of primary school age, 47 per cent are not expected to ever set foot in a classroom at all.
Dey wasn’t thinking about these statistics when she asked her father to sign a form allowing her to travel 60 kilometres to write India’s two-day university entrance exam. Although her own parents stopped going to school after Grade 4, she was a top student at her high school, gravitating toward subjects like math and physics. Her dream? To become a school teacher.
“I never thought that I could come to Canada and do a PhD or go into engineering. That kind of ambition just was not in my community,” she explains.
But when Dey scored 90 per cent on the university entrance exam and ranked for engineering, Dey’s academic goals started to shift. She studied engineering at Jadavpur University, a top institution in Kolkata, the closest large city, and scraped by with several academic scholarships.
Dey eventually completed a master’s degree in civil engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, receiving a gold medal for the best academic performance in the master of technology program in structural engineering.
STEM industries need more women to step up, says Catherine Burns, systems design engineering professor in Waterloo's Faculty of Engineering and Director for the Centre for Bioengineering and Biotechnology.
We want women in these creative engineering and technology fields. That's just good business.
For instance, 2.5 million new engineers and technicians will be needed in sub-Saharan Africa to reach UNESCO goals of improving access to clean water and sanitation, while the European Parliament is forecasting about seven million new STEM jobs by 2025 in Europe alone.
“We want women in these creative engineering and technology fields. That’s just good business,” says Burns.
Ensuring that more girls consider STEM careers – and then remain in them once they’ve graduated – comes with challenges, admits Jo Atlee, a computer science professor in Waterloo's Faculty of Mathematics and director of Waterloo’s Women in Computer Science.
“Most of the experiences are positive, and I do think things are getting better,” Atlee is quick to point out, but “there is still sexism, discrimination and harassment.”
Indeed, in India and around the world, there are new positive changes for girls and education in motion today. More families in India are realizing the positive impact of having educated children, with many now sending their girls to government and private schools.
Non-governmental organizations are running computer coding boot camps for girls in countries such as Ghana and Nigeria while others are working in rural locations training women as solar engineers, innovators and educators.
And there are women like Dey, now an assistant professor in Canada, who are inspiring girls to reach their full potential by teaching and leading by example, challenging stereotypes and forging new opportunities. Even when she goes back to India, she offers advice to local girls in town.
“I just tell them to be independent and study hard,” she says. “Focus on science and engineering. That can change your life.”