I am the demonstration, you be the voice: Empowering Girls into STEM

In the not so distant future, the job landscape will be centred around science and technology. 90 percent of all jobs requiring Information Communication Technology (ICT) skills. We would like to think the past 20 years has evoked great change in gender equality and the rights of women in the workplace. Unfortunately, we are still seeing gaps in wage, gender biases and the inevitable glass ceiling in all areas of the workforce. This is especially true in science and technology.

According to UNESCO data, only 30 percent of female students have enrolled in post-secondary STEM-related studies, with only 3 percent in Information Communication Technology (ICT) studies. In Canada, a 2015 UN Human Rights report shared concerns about “the persisting inequalities between women and men” in Canada. This includes the “high level of the pay gap” and its effect on low-income women, racialized women, and Indigenous women. Out of 43 countries, Canada is ranked 8th as having the greatest wage gap according to the OECD 2016 data (Canadian Women’s Foundation).

The Atlantic Canadian education departments have recognized this incredible shift and are working with non-profit groups like Brilliant Labs, hands-on technology and experiential learning platform based in the region to support the integration of creativity, innovation, coding, and an entrepreneurial spirit within classrooms and educational curricula. Brilliant Labs is proud to share that 63% of staff are females with more than 75% working in upper management, director and executive roles. Empowering girls and young women to consider studies and careers in ICT fields is a priority of the organization. As Program Director for Brilliant Labs since it’s inception over five years ago, I am honoured to be in a position where I am able to create, support and deliver innovative programming, project-based learning tools for teachers, students and community groups on a daily basis.


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In the Photo: Girls learning to code robots and learning to work together at Brilliant Labs STEAM Camp. Photo Credit: Brilliant Labs.

When I began this journey with Brilliant Labs, I was unaware of just how much influence and impact I would have. More importantly, how deeply my impact was needed. Mentoring youth, particularly girls and young women, has afforded me the ability to speak for those who are not always heard. As a single mother of a six-year-old boy, I have also recognized the significant influence I can impress upon young men to be mindful of the biases that our culture holds towards women.

I watch my son play, grow, and form his own conclusions about the world around him. This inspired me to share my story with him through a letter. Although addressed to him, I hope it can also affect others — mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, educators, influencers of our society — to not only consider how girls and women are treated in everyday dialogue, classrooms and the workforce but also recognize their impact and therefore ability to support a movement towards gender equality. May this be a call-to-action for each and every one of us. It is not enough to presume change is happening, we must each assume our individual responsibility to see that it becomes a reality.

A Letter to My Son: I am the demonstration, you be the voice

Dear Lennan,

It is with love and the utmost importance that I am writing this letter to you, my dear son. As I watch you now, at age six, you are still very fresh to the “real world”. Your observations of the world around you become more insightful every day. Your many empathic questions about life (which you show daily) demonstrate your potential. As you continue to observe and try to understand people and their actions you will soon realize that not all things are fair. This insight is what will allow you to be a driving force for positive change.

As your mother, a woman who works in science and technology education, you have described me as a “real-life scientist”. This makes me smile. However, I also want you to recognize my struggles and understand that my accomplishments have not come easily. Given all that I see you are, I believe that you will embrace the importance of my message and share it as you journey through life. My story is not necessarily typical, especially as a woman. However, given the opportunities that my parents afforded me, I was lucky to have great support and options that many other girls did not.

I am proud to be able to provide similar opportunities to you. In recognizing our luck, we also have to recognize the reality that most others, especially young girls and women, still do not have similar opportunities. My hope is that in hearing my story and appreciating all that we have, you will continue my efforts to evoke change and promote gender equality. Do this both here at home and around the world.

Your curiosity and inquisitive nature uncannily mimics mine at your age, naturally seeking answers from parents we love and look up to. I asked a lot of the very same questions that you ask me, especially pertaining to science. My parents did their best to help me find answers, not just give them to me, as I do for you. When we were stuck with a particularly tricky question they would respond with, “I don’t know, let’s find out together”. Keep in mind when I was your age we didn’t have Google but my parents had a lot of life experience and a very expensive set of Encyclopedia Britannica.

As a high school physics teacher, my father always had science equipment around the house (glass prisms, chemistry sets, catapults, magnets and more). Having these resources available gave me an educational advantage that I hadn’t yet realized was unique. Most importantly, I had parents who recognized and supported my interests. Similarly, you have robots, coding games, a sewing machine and so many other things to explore. Following in their footsteps, I am grateful to be able to support your explorations with both resources and encouragement.

In the Photo: A student in class learning how to create music using a Makey Makey. Photo Credit: Brilliant Labs.

Growing up, my mother shared stories of her journey from a girl to a woman to a mother. She worked in various positions during the 1970s and 80s. Many of her experiences were hard for me to understand when I was younger. I grew to learn that there was a hard truth in her stories. A truth which most women experience at some point in their lives. She spoke of the unfair treatment she received simply because she was a woman. Women were paid far less than men, even with the same job requirements. We were not encouraged to seek management positions. We were not welcomed in many sectors, especially those in science and technology. As I think back, I see that my mother may have been preparing me for similar setbacks, although hopeful that things would have improved.

In the Photo: Girls creating their own SCRATCH game at Brilliant Labs STEAM Camp. Photo Credit: Brilliant Labs.

When I decided to follow my dreams to be a scientist I enrolled in university. I was so excited to finally begin the “adult” part of life’s journey. I was excited to grow into the woman I dreamed to be: educated and able to support myself with a career that I loved. While carefully selecting the courses I would take I decided to choose an entry-level computer course. I was excited to build on the skills that my brother, a computer scientist, had shown me.

Unfortunately, my rural high school offered very little in terms of computer science. I was surprised to see that I was the only woman enrolled in the course. Although disappointed at that fact I was still excited to begin the course. However, being the only woman made me a target for rude comments and snickers. My classmates pointed out my lack of coding knowledge and made it clear I didn’t belong. No one took the time to make me feel welcome or stick up for me when they should have. That being said, I did finish the course though I did not do as well as I could have. Being an outsider affected my confidence. I was too shy to ask for extra help and even missed some classes.


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Fast forward to now. I have my “dream job” as Program Director with Brilliant Labs. I am so very lucky to wake up every day to a career I love. It is my “passion project”. I know many women who have tried unsuccessfully to “make it” in my field of work. Some have progressed only to be pushed aside or forced into giving up their career after starting a family.

In the Photo: Sarah with ROV Team students at 2019 Maker Faire. Photo Credit: Mandi Holness.

My dear son, remember this message: everyone deserves to feel comfortable and encouraged to pursue what they love — no matter their gender. It is my hope that you will be an agent of change. You can invoke this in many ways. Speak up when someone discourages a girl from trying robotics by saying “but that’s for boys.” Help a young lady in a computer class feel like they belong there just as much as you do. Stand up when someone says something about girls not being scientists or good with technology. You can make a difference.

As you grow, learn, and carve your place in the world please always be aware of those around you. Sooner than you realize, you will be preparing to move into the “real world”. I promise to support you in finding what you love and discovering your very own “passion project.” Hard work and dedication is worth it. Every day I see it in the youth I work with. I see it in your face when you ask what I built or fixed today. I feel it as I write this letter to you.

Change comes from many directions. Seek education and a career which you love. You will likely see some degree of the same unfairness that Nanny, myself, and many other women have experienced and continue to experience, in school, work, and even family life. To ensure that things keep improving for the girls and women who you love now and will meet and love in the future, please keep these thoughts in your mind and heart. Be the voice to lead others from my demonstration and encouragement. This will help girls and women, like mommy, do what they love knowing they have the same equal pay and opportunities as boys and men have. So that they will have fewer troubles to overcome as they continue their life’s journey.

With all of my support, encouragement, and confidence in you—

Love,

Mommy, “a real-life scientist”

In the Photo: Sarah Ryan and her son, Lennan. Photo Credit: Sarah Ryan.

In the Cover Picture: BrilliantLabs STEAM Camp, Girls coding and working as a team. Photo Credit: Brilliant Labs.


EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed here by Impakter columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. 

About the Author /

Sarah Ryan’s focus is to create, support and deliver innovative programming & project-based learning tools for teachers, students and community groups, while being a strong voice for closing the gender gap in science & technology. Sarah is the recipient of two empowering awards: the Digital Nova Scotia’s “Power IT Up: Next Generation Leadership" award for her work as a role model to youth, particularly those in under-represented communities and the Women in Communications & Technology (WCT) 2019 "Rising Star" award for her efforts to inspire young women in ICT.

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