For TechPong 2017, the staff at CHIMP nominated and voted on which charity we’re raising funds for. This year’s category is youth and STEM education, and there were some great causes to choose from.
In the end, it was the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST) that won the most hearts at CHIMP. As a tech company whose staff is 47% female, we want to see more women entering the field. And SCWIST is working to make that happen.
“Our mission is to empower women and encourage girls into science, engineering and technology,” says Danniele Livengood, SCWIST board member and VP Director, Events.
SCWIST has been pursuing this mission for over 30 years. Historically, women and girls have faced huge barriers to entry in the STEM field at every scale: from broad systemic inequalities in education and funding, to discrimination at the level of the job interview.
Today, women face sexual harassment from coworkers and bosses at major tech firms; members of the misogynist so-called “men’s rights” movement loudly question whether women are biologically capable of performing their roles in the STEM workplace; and the pay gap still hasn’t closed.
There’s hope to be found learning about the achievements of women who have fought these barriers—from pioneering nuclear physicist Harriet Brooks, to astronaut and neurologist Roberta Bondar.
But Livengood says that, despite advances for Canadian women in STEM, there’s much more work to be done.
“A lot of overtly sexist policies have been removed,” says Livengood. “There are laws and best practices in place now that remove a lot of the sexism that was preventing women from pursuing certain career or education paths.
“What we’re left with now is more of a cultural barrier.”
According to Livengood, studies have demonstrated that, as early as the age of three, many young girls begin to associate STEM roles with men. By that age, media exposure has already begun to establish a pattern of assumptions in viewers.
“If you watch kids’ media these days, and you see that, every time someone’s supposed to be a scientist, astronaut, a science teacher, something like that,” says Livengood, “Every time someone comes onscreen in that role and they’re a man… that’s a pattern.”
Encouraging girls to pursue careers in STEM means changing their perceptions of the field at a young age.
“They’ve been told for their whole lives, growing up, that science isn’t cool, that being smart isn’t cool,” says Livengood. “So they choose not to do those things.”
SCWIST’s ms infinity program helps girls enrolled in Grades 1-12 learn more about and engage with STEM. Through in-class workshops and online mentorship programs, they get to meet role models who are passionate about their field, and challenge prevailing attitudes about gender and STEM professions. Once they’ve entered high school, students can attend conferences, and receive scholarships and honorariums from SCWIST.
Women who have started their careers can also get help from SCWIST’s networking events, and through an online skills exchange called Make Possible, which was created using a grant from the Status of Women in Canada.
“[Make Possible] is like a tiny LinkedIn where people are willing to meet up and chat and share skills,” says Livengood. “But it’s not about getting jobs or putting up your accolades.”
SCWIST also holds an event every March, close to International Women’s Day, at Telus Science World. Called the Wonder Women Networking Evening, it’s a chance for STEM students and professionals to meet with potential mentors and receive career advice.
And, for women in STEM who have recently immigrated to Canada, SCWIST operates Immigrating Women in Stem (IWIS).
“Especially in science and engineering fields, it can be really difficult to get your credentials from another country recognized in Canada,” says Livengood. “We try to help women navigate that process.“
Altogether, SCWIST’s program helps the Society achieve its three general aims: To help women enter STEM fields, to help women stay in STEM fields, and to raise awareness about women in STEM fields. And there’s more coming.
Last year, SCWIST received a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). It’s allowed them to expand their ms infinity program into Northern BC, bringing STEM mentorship opportunities to girls in Aboriginal and rural communities.
And, through the Vancouver Foundation, the Society recently established its Spirit of SCWIST Endowment Fund. Funded by donors including the “SCWIST Elders”—founders and early members of SCWIST who helped the Society get its start—the Fund is meant to provide SCWIST with long-term financial stability.
“We’ll be investing in that,” says Livengood. “And that will benefit all of our programs.”
Interested in supporting SCWIST? Check out their CHIMP page.