Breaking the Stigma: STEMinism 2018

On Wednesday, February 21 Havergal’s Senior School students had the opportunity to attend STEMinism 2018: a student-led conference at the University of Toronto focused on the underrepresentation of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math). The one-day conference consisted of guest speakers, panel discussions and workshops, with 200 students – both male and female – from various independent schools across the GTA in attendance.

A few of Havergal’s STEM enthusiasts, Alexandra Jucan (Grade 12), Fiona Lee (Grade 11), Katelynn Thien (Grade 10) and Joanne Stavropoulos (Grade 10), pitched the opportunity to Mr. Garth Nichols, Havergal’s Vice Principal of Student Engagement & Experiential Development. Their motivation came from the understanding that it would be a valuable opportunity for those who don’t have many role models to look up to within these disciplines.

Apart from being successful, inspiring and incredibly passionate about STEM, the guest speakers all had one thing in common: their careers did not fit into the stereotypical representation of what a career in their field should look like. Instead, each speaker stressed the importance of finding a profession that fits your unique interests and skills. For conference speaker Simrat Sodhi, that meant becoming a Medical Science Liaison at Bayer. Although she wasn’t aware of this type of job before applying, the position perfectly complemented her extroverted personality and interest in ophthalmology.

This story resonated with Jucan, who has a fascination for biomedical engineering. “A few years ago, I wouldn’t have even known there was a path that could combine my interest in both science and design,” she says.

Louisa Greco, former President and Managing Director of Johnson & Johnson and currently a consultant at McKinsey & Company, echoed this sentiment in her workshop titled “Whatever You Believe is True.” She stressed the importance of recognizing your unique value proposition, whatever that might be.

“Innovation is a collaborative process. The best ideas form when there is a diverse range of perspective in the room,” says Lee.

As a Board member of the 30% Club, a non-profit organization that aims to increase gender balance in leadership roles, Greco encourages educators and students to “shed light” on women in STEM to help increase their visibility within their field. The students agreed, as Thien explains. “Promoting women in STEM can be as simple as bringing in more female guest speakers and highlighting existing role models within our community,” she says.

Havergal’s new build and renovations will continue to provide students with the spaces and experiences they need to thrive in STEM-related fields. A makerspace in the Upper School will support an expanded Robotics program and interdisciplinary assignments, such as integrating design and engineering problem-solving in science lessons.

“It is important to have a space where you can take the theorems you have learned in class, and add some creativity and personalization. It is a shift that is crucial to an increase in student engagement in STEM,” explains Lee.

In the Junior School, there will be a new STEM facility in close proximity to the art studio to help encourage cross-disciplinary learning.

“Although I am interested in STEM, I’ve also participated in Havergal’s Arts program over the years. In science, you are often designing solutions to problems that haven’t been solved yet and you need to use creativity to think outside of the box,” says Jucan.

A recent study showed that girls who attend single-sex schools are twice as likely to enrol in chemistry or math courses than girls at co-ed schools. However, these numbers don’t apply to biology, information technology or advanced math courses. Some schools are addressing this discrepancy through programs where older students mentor their younger peers, providing students with female role models1.

“Students often view STEM subjects as being difficult and with the underrepresentation of women in those fields, they can be nervous to get a bad grade or think they can’t do it,” says Lee. “The conference was an opportunity to show students they can do it.”

Through an enriched curriculum, experiential learning opportunities and newly enhanced facilities with dedicated spaces for STEM, Havergal students have the opportunity to break the stigma and create a new representation of women in these fields.

1. H. Cook.: Girls at single-sex schools more likely to choose STEM subjects. The Age. 2018.