News / Halifax

STEMing the gender gap: Halifax study explores getting more girls into math, science fields

The fact that so few women work in the male-dominated fields of science and math is more than just a research interest for Mount Saint Vincent University professor Karen Blotnicky — it’s personal.

“I was the only girl in my Grade 12 physics class,” said Blotnicky. “My teacher literally said, ‘Girls aren’t good at science.’

“If we did an experiment that was messy he handed me the broom. My job was to clean the room.”

Years later, Blotnicky and a team of researchers at MSVU want to address the root causes of the gender imbalance in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

Focusing on junior high students across the Maritimes, they found girls who engaged in science-based activities were a up to five times more likely to consider a career involving science and math.

“If you’re not engaging then you’re not even going to consider it,” said Tamara Franz-Odendaal, the study’s lead researcher and a national chair for women in science and engineering.

One of the lessons, said Franz-Odendaal, is for students to make connections between school subjects and careers.

“They’re not correlating that when I learn about DNA or about cells, how does that relate to a future career?” she said. “(But) you can make wonderful connections.”

Involving girls in highly interactive activities such as science camps or science fairs greatly increases their probability of pursuing a science-based career, said Blotnicky.

“(And) If everyone has a chance to participate in it, then it normalizes that behavior,” she said.

The group's research also holds promise for improving teacher development, said co-researcher Fred French, who works in MSVU's faculty of education.

“I’m really interested in … what can we do with this information in terms of professional development and teacher readiness,” said French. “There’s a lot of stuff in this.”

The findings are the first phase of a five-year longitudinal study that will track the junior high cohort through high school to study what impacts their involvement in the fields of science and math over time.

Overall, while 48.8 per cent of woman make up Canada's workforce, the study says fewer than 25 per cent of women make up Canada's STEM workforce.

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