Getting women into science and tech is critical for businesses

In recent years, a lot has been written about how to get young girls interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and keep them interested.

The calls of discouragement, saying, if not always directly, that math “is for boys,” are everywhere – in our children’s books (where scientists are men, not women); in our homes (where parents send sons to science camp, but daughters to dance camp); and in our classrooms (where teachers focus on achievements by Einstein and Newton, not Currie and Nightingale).

The gender split in STEM is not because of differing aptitudes.

One of the most interesting studies I’ve come across was published last year in the journal Nature Communications. The research, by a team at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, showed that girls outperformed boys in non-STEM subjects and came out almost equal in STEM subjects.

Still, there are more young men than women taking STEM in post-secondary institutions, and even more men in the workforce. One of the researchers’ theories is that high-achieving young women looking at the competitive landscape upon graduation, and seeing lots of male colleagues go for the STEM jobs, choose non-STEM careers, where they assume they’ll have a higher chance of success.

Should we care if that’s what young women choose? I’d argue yes. For one thing, as a female CEO in the tech sector, I’d like some company.

For another, diversity, as the research shows, makes for a stronger business. McKinsey & Co., in a 2015 report titled Why Diversity Matters, looked at proprietary data sets for 366 public companies across a range of industries in Canada, Latin America, the U.K. and the U.S. The results were pretty clear: companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

That unrealized potential isn’t just a social imperative, then, but also a huge economic imperative, especially given all the STEM jobs that go unfilled. It’s why you’re hearing politicians across Canada jumping on the bandwagon this year, touting their commitment to the cause of women in science and tech.

Just this past February, the federal government announced a draft charter for Canada’s colleges and universities, modelled after Britain’s Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) program, to “encourage and recognize commitments made by post-secondary institutions towards advancing equity, diversity and inclusion in the research community.” It also announced $10 million in grants to help such institutions “embrace and increase diversity.”

It’s a great idea, but clearly there’s a long way to go. In B.C., women receive about 37% of the post-secondary STEM credentials, compared with 59% of non-STEM credentials. To make a real and lasting impact on STEM fields and those going into them, we need to build a pipeline that will deliver balance among graduating classes each year. And we can’t wait for young women to get to college or university before trying to solve the imbalance.

That’s one of the reasons I’m on the board of Science World – to make a difference in girls’ lives early on. Last November, we launched a Girls and STEAM event, targeting girls aged 12 to 14 (the A is for art and design). The event included high-impact workshops, inspiring speeches and opportunities to connect with female leaders in the STEAM community.

More than 300 girls attended, including my own 12-year-old daughter. And, back by popular demand, we’ll host a second such event at Science World this November.

We even were able to get the support of the provincial government, which proclaimed the first week in November as Women and Girls in STEAM Week in B.C.

Inspiring young girls is critical, as is keeping them interested throughout their academic careers. But then what? The fact remains that women are still woefully under-represented in the STEM workforce. According to research from TD Economics, women represent just 23% of all full-time STEM positions in Canada; even in my own company, despite my best efforts, only one in five employees is a woman.

There are no easy fixes for business owners, but the authors of the TD report suggest reflecting hard on your hiring practices and corporate culture. “Are employees right-skilled to their education and skill levels?” the report asks. “Are development and professional opportunities provided equally to individuals? How might corporate culture cause friction for women preferring full-time roles?”

If we’re going to encourage more women to become the next Nobel Prize-winning scientist or Silicon Valley CEO, we need to address the issues with our educational pipeline, to be sure.

But as business owners, we must also work tirelessly to tear down the walls that face female grads once they get their STEM credentials. Our future economic prosperity depends on it.

Cybele Negris is CEO and co-founder of Webnames.ca, Canada’s original .ca registrar. She’s a serial entrepreneur, board director, keynote speaker and columnist.