It's really my pleasure to be here. I'm very grateful to have the opportunity to address this committee on such an important topic.
My name is Jennifer Flanagan. I'm president and CEO of Actua. Actua is a national charitable organization that represents a network of 33 organizations located at universities and colleges across Canada. Together with our members, we're engaging 225,000 youth, ages six to 16, in 500 communities covering every province and territory. We engage them in interactive, hands-on science, engineering, and technology experiences, and that's what my comments will address as well. These include school workshops, year-round clubs, summer camps, and other community outreach initiatives.
Over the past two decades of offering programs, we've developed and refined a program delivery model that engages youth at an early age, before they make decisions about careers and futures and what is possible for them. From our years of formal research, we know that our programs are successful in influencing the attitudes and behaviours of youth toward future studies and careers in science, engineering, and technology. More broadly, and I think more importantly, we're playing a critical role in improving science and technology literacy among Canadian youth, which we know is key to full participation of the next generation of Canadians in all economic sectors.
Women, as we know, are still vastly under-represented in science, engineering, and technology. While there has been progress in some fields of science, such as health and medicine, women remain under-represented in many others, such as engineering, computer science, physics, and math. This is particularly evident in management roles in these sectors, which are traditionally higher paying and thus more important for improving the economic prospects of girls and women. This under-representation of women is also very evident in the trades.
With the considerable employment opportunities these fields will represent in the coming years, this under-representation is a significant issue for the future economic prosperity of girls. In addition, our country simply will not reach its full innovation potential without women equally represented at the table in these fields. To improve the economic success of girls, we must engage them and show them that there is a place for them in these critical fields. Strategies are needed now to narrow the gender gap in these areas. This will not only ensure economic independence among women and improve their economic prosperity but will also contribute to the development of a larger and more diverse workforce.
Actua's national girls program was developed in 1999 in response to a noted pattern of decline in the participation of girls in our camps across the country. We were also witnessing negative changes in girls' attitudes, confidence, and interest when they were transitioning from our junior programs, which engage them at around the grade four level, to our middle school programs, which engage them at around grades six and seven. This was particularly evident when working with more at-risk groups of girls.
Feedback from parents across the country also indicated that stereotypes were still preventing them from encouraging their daughters to consider futures in science, engineering, and technology.
Based on those observations, our experience, and our ongoing research into the lives and realities of girls, we developed an all-girls program model that provided girls with a safe, non-judgmental, and fun environment in which to explore, create, and interact with role models. Our programs, which include all-girl clubs and camps, are designed for girls to acquire critical life and employability skills, such as team-building, collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking, financial literacy, and technical proficiency. I should also mention that we are focused within our girls program on engaging girls who have other economic and social challenges, particularly aboriginal girls. We have a significant focus on aboriginal youth across the country.
Our national girls program is designed, first and foremost, to increase the girls' self-confidence and self-efficacy, as we know that these are the most important predeterminants of future success. It also provides an early, positive experience at a university or college campus, which again is another key experience that will increase the likelihood of their considering post-secondary study in the future.
One of the most important findings from our early research was that although girls in our programs were increasing their knowledge and skill and interest in science and technology, we weren't changing their future intentions with regard to studying science and technology or considering them as future career options. The lack of female role models meant that although girls were interested in science, they were still not imagining themselves in these fields in the future.
We started a national girls mentorship program in response to that research finding in 2003. Girls in our programs now regularly interact with positive female role models with whom they can relate. We want the girls leaving our programs to know that their perspectives matter and that there's a place for them in science, engineering, and technology.
We also focus heavily on reinforcing among parents and caregivers the importance of encouraging girls to study math and science, and to view these as subjects that can open doors to many exciting career and life experiences, not just those in pure science.
The fulfilment of these objectives prepares young girls for the full exploration of their academic and professional potential as leaders in science, technology, and engineering studies and careers. This results in a significant contribution toward the empowerment of girls to achieve their full economic and financial independence.
Early engagement is absolutely key to this work. A lot of efforts to promote post-secondary studies and careers are focused on high school aged youth. Research has demonstrated, and we certainly find from personal experience, that this is too late for most girls. In fact research shows that girls decide very, very early on what they believe they can or can't do when they get older. They need to have experiences very early, in elementary school or before, that change these perceptions.
Based on our experience, our research, and the success we've had in engaging thousands of girls over the past two decades, we would make the following key recommendations to the committee.
First, we need to invest in science, technology, engineering, and math outreach programming designed to develop science literacy; and we need to engage, inspire, and influence girls to participate in these important fields of study. Specifically, support should be directed to programs that engage girls at an early age, before life-changing decisions regarding education and careers are made. These types of programs are playing a significant role in building resiliency and economic independence among girls and young women. This will also result in a significant overall contribution to economic prosperity and a much-needed boost to diversity and the job force.
Second, we need to provide financial support for mentorship programs designed to introduce young girls to inspirational women scientists and engineers who can share their stories and dispel the still existing stereotypes about what careers are the future for women in Canada.
Finally, we need to advocate for and support those who educate girls—the parents, caregivers, schools, community organizations, and the private sector—about the importance of supporting girls through informal education opportunities at an early age.
In summary, I hope that my remarks have underscored the importance of engaging girls in positive experiences that will allow them to imagine bright futures for themselves. Investments in these areas will narrow the gender gap, increase our labour force and, most importantly, achieve the committee's overall objective of improving the economic futures of girls and women.