Today, March 8th is International Women’s Day (IWD).
This year, the United Nations Observance of IWD is calling special attention to #DigitalALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality, with a focus on the importance of ensuring women have internet connection to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
We spoke with Canadian STEM leader and female empowerment advocate Jennifer Flanagan on the importance for women and youth to get engaged in STEM to further close the gender gap and make the field much more diverse and inclusive going forward.
Flanagan is the co-founder and CEO of Actua.
Actua is renowned as Canada’s leading science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education outreach organization for girls, with Jennifer leading a national network engaging 350,000 female youth each year through established programs such as the Actua National Girls Program, providing STEM insights and career development for over 15,000 girls annually.
This year, IWD is calling special attention to #DigitalALL; how does Actua connect to this topic and why is it important?
JF: Actua’s ultimate mission is to help support, educate and train youth for the skills needed for their futures – a future that will inevitably include technology. We know that girls and young women continue to be vastly underrepresented in STEM and especially in digital fields and Actua has worked for the past twenty years to reverse this trend through educational programs offered across the country and by relentlessly working to remove the barriers that exist to engagement. Every youth will require digital skills and Actua creates the safe, inclusive spaces to ensure girls and young women gain those skills while learning how to keep themselves safe online.
What is the Actua National Girls Day program?
JF: Actua’s National Girls Program, now over twenty years old, inspires girls and young women to fulfill their unique and important role in STEM. These all-girl programs are led by instructors who serve as inspiring role models, mentors and allies breaking down long-standing stereotypes about women in STEM. They encourage girls and young women to explore areas of STEM by connecting these topics to things the girls care about and by emphasizing how important their voices are.
What do STEM opportunities for youth and women in Canada look like today compared to previous years?
JF: The most significant and important change is that there is now broader awareness that the problem with lower participation of girls and women in STEM is NOT girls and women, but the systems that continue to be full of barriers and unfair biases. Girls love STEM. Women are amazing at STEM. We must continue to work to call out systemic barriers and ensure that workplaces are inclusive. Actua’s programs also make sure that girls’ interests and realities are at the center of the content – their voices and ideas shape all areas of the programs. STEM careers continue to grow in Canada and we need all populations to be engaged to meet our workforce needs.
What does leading female empowerment mean to you?
JF: Female empowerment looks like supporting, boosting and rewarding women and girls for all their achievements and passions. We need to give girls and women more opportunities and pathways into these diverse fields to not only encourage inclusivity but also provide more spokespeople and women for youth to look up to and learn from when aiming to navigate into these careers.
As a Canadian tech leader, what advice would you give to girls and women looking to pursue a career in the tech industry?
JF: One of the biggest barriers of girls and women in the tech industry is representation. The more we see women in these positions, and pursuing careers in this industry, the more this encourages girls to follow similar paths. This however does not come without institutional change. I would encourage girls and young women to challenge these systems, and take every opportunity for a seat at the table to help bridge this gender gap. To continue this change, girls and women need to be engaged as early and as often as possible. Finally, whether you are a female who has built a career in this industry, or are on the brink of making that breakthrough into the field, share your stories – the successes and the failures – as you never know who may be impacted and inspired by it along the way.
How can we ensure a more inclusive, diverse field for women in STEM careers?
JF: We call out the barriers and the bias. We also must see men stepping up to demand this change. Companies where women lead are more successful and more profitable. More diverse STEM creates better science outcomes. Creating a more inclusive STEM field benefits everyone. Until this is achieved, Actua will continue offering opportunities for girls and women, 150,000 per year, to build their confidence and skills.