From Roberta Bondar, the first Canadian woman to travel to space, to Nobel Prize recipient Donna Strickland, women have always been on the front lines of great discoveries and groundbreaking works of science.
While studies repeatedly report that STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are predominantly male dominated, there has been a rise in women in STEM, making space for young girls to dream of one day becoming the next Jane Goodall or Marie Curie.
Post-secondary institutions are one of the first places that future thinkers find inspiration.
A 2019 report from Statistics Canada found that in 2010, 44 percent of first-year STEM students aged 19 or under were female, whereas women accounted for more than 64 percent of students in BHASE (business, humanities, health, arts, social science, and education), and other non-STEM programs.
There may be fewer women studying STEM, but the report revealed that, compared to male students, female students are equally or more likely to persist in their initial field of study and complete their STEM undergraduate degree more quickly.
In recent years, VIU has had a primarily female student body—women made up 58 percent of the total student body for the 2019/2020 school year. Between the 2015/2016 and 2019/2020 school year, the Faculty of Science and Technology saw a four percent rise in female student enrolment from 42 percent to 46 percent.
Bachelor of Science student Bailey Maltesen finds this empowering.
“I think it’s really cool that there are so many women that I know and that I’m surrounded by who are also in STEM, and that we have that opportunity to learn what we want to learn and do what we want to do, and not feel like ‘Oh, no, you can’t do that because you’re a girl,’” Maltesen says.
Maltesen is currently majoring in both biology and chemistry in her second year at VIU after transferring from a criminology program at Simon Fraser University. She hopes to work in marine biology and study marine mammals, an aspiration that stems from her childhood love of whales.
Studying at VIU has been a positive experience for Maltesen. She is able to do hands-on fieldwork assignments like trapping, tagging, and handling mice, and she learns new and exciting things every day. The most recent fun fact she learned is that although butterflies eat with their mouths, they taste with their feet.
“I’ve had so many women teachers that have honestly been super-duper smart. You can tell they’re smart and it’s super empowering to see them be a really strong smart woman rocking it in their field and doing what they spent years studying,” Maltesen says.
She says at school she has never felt discriminated against because of her gender, and she thinks it’s because of all the female professors that teach in her programs.
“At VIU we have so many women professors who are not only passionate about their field, but they also encourage … students to be passionate about the field too.”
Bachelor of Science students Eden Rowe and Haley Andersen also say they feel comfortable and welcome as female students in the STEM program.
Rowe, a third year ecology student, first learned about the human body in seventh grade and thought it was “the coolest thing ever.” She’s been interested in studying science ever since.
Rowe is thinking about working in wildlife rehabilitation after completing her degree, but may also go for a master’s degree in zoology or conservation.
Rowe says she sees a positive future for women in STEM, as she notices more and more women taking over the male-dominated field.
She points out American 19-year-old aspiring astronaut Alyssa Carson, who is the first person ever to attend all three NASA space camps held in America, Turkey, and Canada. Carson is currently training to be one of the first people to step foot on Mars.
“I feel like [Carson’s accomplishments are] a big, wonderful thing that’s happening in STEM, and it will definitely influence and inspire lots of young generations of women to pursue that,” Rowe says.
Andersen dreamt of being a pastry chef growing up, and never imagined herself going into science. It wasn’t until her first year at VIU, when she took an introductory molecular and cellular biology class, that she decided to study biology full-time.
Andersen says, as a woman in STEM, she feels capable of doing anything. She says the number of female professors in VIU’s Faculty of Science and Technology encourages her to keep moving forward through her program.
“When you look at the faculty list … for biology, it’s split evenly [between] men and women, so I feel like it’s really nice to go to [VIU]. I don’t know how it is at other schools, but so many of my professors have been really smart and successful women and I think that has been something that has really helped me stay in biology,” Andersen says.
Biology professor Mercedes Hernandez completed her bachelor’s degree in biology and education in Venezuela, where she lived until she was 27. She then came to Canada to pursue graduate school. She continued studying science because she was fascinated by molecular biology. She has turned to teaching because she wants to help students find their passion for science.
“I enjoy the process of watching the students grow in their knowledge and understanding of the processes … especially when you teach practical courses. It is very fascinating and rewarding to see these students become very proficient as they practice their laboratory skills,” Hernandez says.
She says being a woman in STEM means inspiring the next generation of girls to be passionate about what they love.
“I hope it helps to inspire more girls and young women [to get] into science … I hope that as [women] fill fields in the sciences, that the next generation of girls and young women can see themselves also doing it.”
Hernandez says that she has never experienced discrimination personally during her time in the STEM field. She admits it can be difficult for any gender to find jobs after schooling, but persistence is the key.
Instead of discrimination, Hernandez has witnesses the rise of women in STEM at VIU.
“Here at VIU, I have always felt welcome, and I see the students feel so very comfortable here,” Hernandez says. “I’m optimistic when I see the progress that we have made … And we need to make sure that we keep moving forward and hopefully at a faster pace, because there are still areas [in STEM such as] engineering, [and] master’s in computer science that probably need more of us to be there.”
VIU appears to be moving towards greater equality in STEM fields, possessing both a female vice-chancellor and president and hosting a rise in female faculty and female deans. VIU is showing future scientists, engineers, and developers that women at VIU are capable of achieving anything they put their mind to.
As for advice Hernandez, Rowe, Andersen, and Maltesen would give young girls dreaming of going into STEM, this is what they had to say:
Hernandez: “If you’re interested in science, technology, engineering, math, or anything else, go for it. You might run into obstacles—likely there are gonna be obstacles on the way—but it’s worth the effort to really keep up.”
Rowe: “Don’t let anything stop you. Just keep on doing what you want to do because there’s no reason you shouldn’t pursue what interests you. There’s no reason that anyone should stand in your way.”
Andersen: “Just keep studying. Don’t give up and also don’t be dissuaded or put down by your peers. In high school, especially, I think that it’s important to be confident in your knowledge and don’t let other people make you feel stupid.”
Maltesen: “If you find whales super cool, I think you should go and study whales if that’s something you’re passionate about. Don’t be deterred because you don’t have good grades. I find the grades come with curiosity and passion, and when you finally really do it, it’s so much easier to learn about things and enjoy learning.”