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Girls need role models beyond world of sports

The Calgary Herald by Brandi Chuchman 7 March 2014

Hockey has Hayley Wickenheiser. Cross-country skiing has Becky Scott. Freestyle skiing had Sarah Burke. Canadian idols in their respective sports, these women have each inspired a generation.

When it comes to sports, we all get it. We see the impact and importance of successful female role models for girls. Now quick: how many female scientists or engineers do you think your daughter or niece can name?

To be sure, there have been celebrated female scientists throughout history, such as Marie Curie and Jane Goodall. But today’s generation of girls needs new role models for the 21st century: women who right now are doing amazing things in science and engineering.

A recent academic study found that science and engineering professors — both women and men — rated applications for a lab manager position higher if they bore a man’s name instead of a woman’s. Unconscious gender biases such as these make it harder for women to pursue careers in the sciences and engineering, and dissuade them from becoming leaders in these fields.

This is a problem — not only because women deserve equal opportunity, but because diversity is a key ingredient in increased innovation, corporate profits and solutions for global challenges. In Alberta, there is already a shortage of engineers. Enabling more women to pursue and excel in the sciences and engineering is not a nice-to-have policy, it is a necessity.

Giving girls role models in science and engineering is a proven way to counteract societal gender bias. Participants in the University of Calgary’s Cybermentor program, which matches Alberta girls with female scientists and engineers, consistently report increased knowledge and more positive attitudes toward science and math. Many have gone on to become science or engineering mentors for younger girls themselves.

Showcasing female role models makes a difference. Since women’s hockey first appeared in a world championship in 1990, the number of girls and women participating in organized hockey in Canada has increased by more than 950 per cent, according to statistics from Hockey Canada. Legacy building takes time, but it does happen.

Not only do female role models positively influence girls, they impact the behaviours and attitudes of entire communities. When a local hockey coach sees Hayley Wickenheiser score goals for Team Canada, he may give the girls on his peewee team more opportunities to play forward. And when a teacher sees computer scientist Marissa Mayer making headlines as the new CEO of Yahoo, she may change how she talks to Grade 8 girls about tech classes.

Wickenheiser, Scott and Burke are heroes. Canadian girls not only look up to these female sports icons, they relate to them. They realize that, if Hayley Wickenheiser from Calgary can win a gold medal at the Olympics, maybe I can do it too.

March is national engineering month and today is International Women’s Day. Let’s all do our part to showcase the contributions of female scientists and engineers. Let’s inspire our nieces, our daughters — all the young women we know — with a new type of role model: passionate women in science and engineering who make a world of difference.

Brandi Chuchman is director of the Cybermentor program and a member of the Gender and Diversity in Engineering Committee at the University of Calgary.