A woman’s place in STEM

fNma9vYVLast Sunday, March 8, was International Women'€™s Day.

I hold this day to grave importance and thought it would be timely to write this piece.

I want to begin with an anecdote of what it'€™s like to be a minority in the tech industry. A while back, I booked a technical lunch-and-learn session with a local Edmonton meetup group to learn about the latest services offered by one of North America'€™s biggest cloud providers. The place where this event was organized had a couple other gatherings at the same time, so I asked a man standing around if he knew where the tech meetup room was. Even before I could finish my question, he had decided that I was looking for the women'€™s shoe design workshop, and showed me where to go. I still remember the look on his face when I told him I was there for a technical lunch-and-learn. It was similar to the shock/disbelief on those children'€™s faces when their moms said they had eaten their Halloween candies on Jimmy Kimmel'€™s show. What amazed me was the person'€™s instant judgement.

There has always been a debate about why women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) are underrepresented throughout history. Researchers, educationalists and scholars have come up with so many theories on why this is, but do they really represent the reality? We read many stories on how women are not given equal opportunities, given lower pay than their male counterparts, harassed at workplaces, not given due respect for her contributions… etc. I am no scholar to validate or deny them, so i'€™m going to compare them with my own life and also with a few friends that I have in the industry.

I spent my first 23 years in India, so my experience could be extremely different from women in Canada or other countries. In India, students in elementary and high school, take all of their courses together- irrespective of gender -be it math, science, computers, dance, music, arts etc. This gives everyone an equal opportunity to get hands-on experience in all fields. Contrary to the Canadian or American articles that claim less girls in high school take science or math related courses, most of these classes in India'€™s high schools are equally filled with both genders. In fact, girls often outperform the boys. When it comes to considering options for a Bachelor'€™s degree, the same number of girls choose engineering or medical fields as boys (the two most sought-after fields in India). Most importantly, no one around us discourages us from doing so.

My first full-time work experience was as a Software Developer for an Indian IT firm, and I didn'€™t experience any gender bias. We were paid equal salaries, given equal opportunities and everything was based mostly on qualifications. Though India has its own problems with respect to girls continuing education, it has always been related to economical or cultural issues rather than just the notion that boys are better than girls in STEM.

After I arrived in Canada, I had the opportunity to pursue a Masters degree in another STEM field, and the environment here was entirely different. I noticed that STEM-related Masters and PhD courses were filled with more men than women, and very few women were from an ethnic background. Another huge difference that I found was that all my professors were men, which was a huge shocker to me, because 90% of the teachers, lecturers and professors I had in India were women. In Canada, when I mention my career in IT, people give me an uncertain reaction with raised eyebrows and shoulder shrugs. It'€™s as if it'€™s something unbelievable, while my male friends in the same field don'€™t receive the same reaction.

The gender gap in any culture seems to start from day one of a child'€™s life. You can see the difference in every aspect of our lives: pink for girls and blue for boys, and differences in toys and books given to kids, the clubs they are signed up for, and even in conversations adults have with them. Everything is different. I believe these are the things that shape a child'€™s mind, and naturally guide them to choose a career path. I am not against pink dolls and dresses, but I am advocating that there should be a good mix of everything to give girls a fair chance to make their own decisions. New parents these days are more exposed to these stereotypes and are starting to think differently. I'€™ve seen parents trying to break stereotypes by making changes to how they raise their child. This change can allow girls to expand their career goals in fields such as STEM. It can help them ignore the words of opinionated people and just carry on with what they want to do in life.

Women don'€™t need outreach to bring them into STEM, it'€™s open to all. Just give us a fair chance, equal opportunities and take our science seriously. And please stop being judgemental. If you don'€™t take women seriously because we look and dress differently, then that'€™s your problem, and male-dominated industries could lose some serious talent.

And women, understand that STEM is equally daunting for both genders. It'€™s important to help each other out and remember: just because someone has an opinion, doesn'€™t mean it has to be true. Ignore them and carry on. Ultimately, no one should be reliant on others encouragement or inspiration to show them the path to success. You are your own encouragement and your own inspiration, so go be your own leader. Success is the best revenge for stereotypical ideologies, so face it and win it.