Thank you for inviting me here. I am Larissa Vingilis-Jaremko, and I am the founder and president of the Canadian Association for Girls in Science, CAGIS.
CAGIS is a national volunteer-run science club for girls aged seven to 16. Chapters hold monthly events for members during which we explore a variety of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM-related topics. During these events, we bring girls to the workplaces of women and men in STEM fields to get a behind-the-scenes view of STEM in action and do plenty of fun hands-on activities. These activities are based on inquiry, exploration, and experimentation in small group environments.
For example, in past events we've been engineers designing, building, and testing bridges in a wind tunnel; ecologists sampling plant communities in forests and fields; computer scientists programming code to have robots execute movements; and mechanics fixing cars. We initially emphasized that STEM is everywhere and related to everything. We have even challenged our members in the past to find topics that do not involve STEM, and we've used these to plan additional events such as the physics of figure skating and the chemistry of art conservation.
These events expose girls to a wide range of STEM topics and they build self-efficacy by having the girls themselves build, explore, and design rather than reading about it in a textbook. This hands-on approach to learning helps to consolidate knowledge and make associations that STEM is fun. Additionally, bringing girls to the workplaces of women and men in STEM fields helps to foster a sense of belonging within the lab or field environments and exposes girls to a diverse set of role models in STEM fields.
CAGIS has received many honours for its excellence in science promotion, including the NSERC Michael Smith Award for Science Promotion.
I founded CAGIS when I was nine years old because I noticed that girls in my class hated science. They dreaded science class and thought they weren't smart enough or the right fit for STEM fields despite having high grades. Instead, they wanted to be cheerleaders and pop stars. They also associated scientists with the typical Albert Einstein image, an old man with crazy white hair, a lab coat, and glasses.
These were very different perceptions and interests from my own. My mom is a research scientist, and my dad was an engineer, and we regularly used STEM to explore, experiment, and help answer my endless questions. As a result, I thought that STEM was fun, and I couldn't understand why my friends didn't share this perception.
I also started to notice inequities in my class. For example, one day my teacher asked a volunteer to help her set up an experiment from a science kit. Naturally, I volunteered. I had the exact same science kit at home, and I knew the experiment perfectly. However, my teacher told me, “No, Larissa, I need a boy to do this.”
I wanted to change my friends' and my teacher's perception of STEM and of scientists. I started by inviting women in STEM who were friends of my mom into my classroom to talk about their careers and do fun, hands-on activities with us. However, I realized that my friends at other schools had the same negative and stereotypical view of the sciences, so I decided to start a science club, the Canadian Association for Girls in Science.
Since our humble beginnings, we have spread to have chapters across the country, and we've reached thousands of girls. I'm proud to announce that we're currently celebrating our 25th anniversary.
I would like to say that the stereotypes I noticed during my childhood have disappeared, but sadly, they have not. I regularly go into science classes and ask children to close their eyes and imagine a scientist. When I ask them to describe what they see, the majority still describe the old white man with crazy hair, a lab coat, and glasses. He is often socially awkward and isolated. My experiences with children are consistent with research findings on children's perceptions of scientists. These stereotypical portrayals of scientists continue to permeate the media in a variety of forms, including characters on TV shows like The Big Bang Theory and The Simpsons, and even children's toys, which are becoming increasingly gender divided.
Media portrayals of scientists can influence students' interest in entering those fields. For example, female undergraduates who read an article that refutes stereotypes of computer scientists and states that the field is no longer dominated by male computer geeks express an increased interest in majoring in computer science. This is compared to women who read an article confirming the stereotypes, and women who read no article at all. Thus, media portrayals of scientists can influence interest in pursuing the sciences. Other research has demonstrated that watching videos profiling scientists improves school children's attitudes towards the sciences.
Additionally, visits from female scientists, reading articles about women in STEM, and teachers profiling women in STEM decrease stereotypic associations and improve attitudes toward women in STEM among female and male schoolchildren.
Role models are important. Providing children with a non-stereotyped and diverse role model in the sciences can influence perceptions of scientists and interest in pursuing STEM fields. Additional research indicates that hands-on activities, project-based science, co-operative learning, and mentoring programs that connect girls to scientists improve learning and attitudes toward STEM.
To summarize, hands-on activities, co-operative learning, project-based learning, and exposure to female role models in STEM fields have been shown to improve attitudes toward the sciences, increase girls' interest in STEM fields, and/or improve learning outcomes in STEM.
Although I didn't know it as a child, I simply designed a club that I thought would interest other girls. These are all elements that CAGIS uses in its approach, which has been very successful.
Why is it important to remove barriers and facilitate girls' interest in STEM?
Women remain under-represented in STEM occupations in Canada. This under-representation affects women's economic security. According to Statistics Canada, wages are higher on average in natural and applied sciences, fields in which women are under-represented, compared with those in health care and elementary and secondary education, fields in which women are overrepresented. Thus, facilitating women's access to STEM fields has the potential to improve women's economic development and security in Canada.
It's additionally important to remove barriers and facilitate girls' interest in STEM because we live in a knowledge-based society. In order for Canada to maximize its potential, we need the best and brightest working on innovative new ideas and continuing research and development. We cannot afford to exclude any sector of our society.
I have described some of the challenges involving gender-role stereotypes among children and how they affect girls' perception of STEM professionals and associated career aspects. I have also described a variety of evidence-based interventions that are successful at changing perceptions and facilitating STEM interest among girls and young women. Science promotion that utilizes these interventions needs to continue.
Childhood is where the problem begins, but there are several additional steps that young women must navigate before they're able to enter STEM careers. Systemic barriers continue at the post-secondary level. Following high school, youth interested in STEM careers enter college or university, depending on the field of interest. Following this, students go on to an apprenticeship, enter the workforce, or they continue their education with a master's degree or a Ph.D.
However, implicit stereotypes continue to affect women's opportunities. For example, in a study published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, science professors at large research institutions were give application materials from students applying to be lab managers. Each application was randomly given either a male or a female name. The male applicant was rated as more competent and more hireable than the female applicant, who was identical. The faculty additionally assigned a higher starting salary and more career mentoring to the male applicant.
I was expecting 10 minutes. I know it's seven minutes. I'll wrap this up here.
We need to continue the work in STEM, but the work has to be at all levels, from childhood all the way through to working women in STEM.