Thank you very much.
It is a real pleasure to be here with you this morning to talk to you about our organization, Actua, and about our work with young girls in science and technology.
Good morning, everyone. It's a real pleasure to be here today. Thank you so much for the opportunity to share Actua's work and some of our recommendations with regard to your current study.
Actua is a national charitable organization that designs and delivers programs that build confidence and skills in science, technology, engineering, and math. We support a network of 35 university- and college-based members across Canada who deliver programming in 500 communities reaching every province and territory. For 20 years we have been the national leader in inclusion programming in this area, engaging underserved and under-represented youth through national programs for girls and young women, youth facing socio-economic challenges, youth in remote and northern communities, and indigenous youth.
Our work in STEM education contributes substantively to Canada's social and economic prosperity. We all know that STEM occupations are typically associated with better employment conditions and higher pay, yet women still occupy only 21% to 23% of all STEM occupations. Obviously this is contributing significantly to the gender pay gap. The stage for this gap is set well before women enter university or the workforce. It begins when young girls learn about their world, hearing subtle and not-so-subtle messages from parents, teachers, and their peers about their roles, and often participating in very different extracurricular activities from boys.
It continues in high school, when teenage girls with higher math scores are less likely to choose STEM programs at university than are teenage boys who have lower math scores. The gap widens in university. Despite representing 59% of all university graduates in Canada, women represent only 23% of graduates in engineering and 30% of graduates in math and computer science. If we want to close this gap, we need to shift the narrative—from how girls and women must change to fit into STEM to how the context around them needs to change.
Actua's national girls program was developed 20 years ago in response to these barriers. We have interacted with literally tens of thousands of girls and their parents across the country. From those experiences we have learned a lot, and a couple of things in particular. Young girls aged six to 10 have no shortage of passion, curiosity, talent, and interest in science and technology. That is without exception across the country. That interest drops at around grade 5 or 6. At this age we see a marked decline in the participation rate of girls in our programs. That decline worsens as time moves on. The interests, behaviours, and choices of girls are hugely influenced by parents and teachers.
We now engage 10,000 girls each year through those initiatives, and do a lot of evaluation to ensure that they're effective. We see from pre- and post-evaluations that girls' confidence, enjoyment, and interest in STEM are increasing as a result of Actua's programs. This is further reflected in the larger data. Between 1991 and 2011 the proportion of women in scientific occupations increased from 18% to 23%. It's not enough, but it's a good increase. In fact increases were seen in all occupational categories except in computer science, where the proportion of women declined from 30% to 25% over that same period.
With technology now underpinning every single field, from business to health care to agriculture, digital literacy is no longer a “nice to have” skill. It has become a basic literacy. If we don't engage girls in building digital literacy, they will be further segregated and will continue not to have equal access to major areas of growth within our economy.
In October 2014 Actua launched with Google a three-year project called Codemakers. We want to transform the way in which youth are engaging with computer science and digital skills. We want to move them from their typical role as consumers of technology into much-needed roles as innovators and producers of technology. In the first two years of that project, we've engaged 80,000 youth across the country in digital skill development experiences. The demand for those programs in every community across the country is massive, but girl engagement has been lacking. We wanted to aggressively pursue changing that so we didn't go down the same path we did with our STEM programs.
Last year we had the support of Status of Women to launch another project, this one to look specifically at the issues and barriers facing girls in computer science and in building digital skills. To date we have done an environmental scan, a literature review, and expert interviews. We're in the process of doing what I think is very unique, a girl-led research piece where the girls are developing the research and then going out and conducting the research. It's putting them right in the middle of this project.
Just a few things have come out of that initially, and I would be happy to come back and share the results once we're finished. At a more general level they include the following.
First, learning experiences in computer science need to be accessible to girls. The systemic sexism that exists in computer science traditionally and how it has been approached needs to be addressed.
Second, girls also need support and encouragement from their parents and teachers, but the parents and teachers need to actually be trained on how to provide that support.
Finally, girls need to understand that digital literacy is a basic literacy. It's not just about becoming a computer scientist. It's relevant to all of their interests in every career path they might want to pursue.
It's clear that in order to make real change we have to focus on context, how everyone from every sector, men and women, needs to stand up and demand that the context for girls and women change. We need to have more open and transparent discussions with girls and women earlier on about what to expect when they get into the workforce, what challenges they might still encounter, and how to overcome those things that exist within the context.
We also need to acknowledge and counteract popular misconceptions about computer science that are not going to appeal to girls.
In closing, I would like to actually commend the current government and those members of other parties who have put their support behind major federal investments in STEM outreach programs for youth. Actua has literally been advocating for this for over 20 years, and in the recent budget 2017, a new fund was announced called teaching kids to code, $50 million over two years. This funding is essential to support organizations like Actua that are ready to scale their work to engage girls in those critical early experiences. We will not achieve gender pay equity if we do not have girls engaged early.
Moving forward, I want to leave you with three recommendations.
The first is to support and incentivize initiatives and efforts to get more women on boards, more women in senior positions in all sectors, and to profile and celebrate companies and specifically men who are fighting the status quo on this. If girls do not see change at the top, things will not change from the bottom.
Second, support initiatives that help parents, teachers, and other influencers gain a better understanding of the skills and competencies that girls require to achieve economic independence; more specific information on that is needed.
Then third, in your constituencies at the local level, support and highlight initiatives that are challenging the status quo and advancing this narrative about how the context needs to change.
That's it for our recommendations, and thank you.