Why Canada’s digital economy rests in the hands of our girls

For International Day of Women and Girls In Science, Jennifer Flanagan urges Canada to invest in the STEM talents of our young girls

Catherine Makarytchev, 8, right, takes her turn looking through magnifying lenses while performing experiments at a junior science program at the University of Toronto. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

Catherine Makarytchev, 8, right, takes her turn looking through magnifying lenses while performing experiments at a junior science program at the University of Toronto. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

Canada’s next federal budget will likely include significant investments to bolster Canadian innovation and advance our digital economy. But if we genuinely want to move the needle on tech and innovation, we need to do something else as well: find ways to encourage more girls to study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), the building blocks of all innovative economies.

Canada’s digital economy contributes more than $70 billion annually to our GDP, but there is a significant and growing skills gap in these fields. Today, women represent only 25 per cent of the STEM workforce—a number that has held fairly steady over the past 30 years, even as the digital economy has grown by leaps and bounds.

As a nation, Canada is on the brink of a major workforce shortage in STEM fields, and yet we continue to miss the mark on engaging half our population. And while government and corporate leaders recognize the economic case for gender parity in STEM, the focus and investment aren’t where they need to be. Canada is at a digital crossroads and the next federal budget can put us on the right track.

The way forward begins by looking at the early experiences of girls. A study released last week by the journal Science found that girls start to think of themselves as less smart than boys at a very young age. Even at the age of six, girls are much less likely than boys to think of females as “super-smart.” At the same time, girls face challenges in developing their digital skills. They face a steady stream of subtle societal cues, gestures and stereotypes that can dampen their enthusiasm for technology and science. And finally, according to a forthcoming Actua report, girls tend to get less screen time and less encouragement to develop their digital skills.

This combination of gender stereotyping and lack of opportunity leads to the situation we find ourselves in today.

MORE: Why there are still far too few women in the STEM fields

The lost opportunity for our digital economy is clear, but keeping girls out of STEM causes other problems, too. Technology and innovation teach important life and job skills—the ability to take risks, how to embrace failure, how to problem solve, and the value of creativity. These skills are at the root of digital innovation, but they’re increasingly important for non-tech jobs, too. The truth is that girls need science as much as science needs girls—and the benefits of education in STEM-related areas are felt, regardless of the career a child chooses.

This problem isn’t ours alone. The United Nations’ General Assembly, which recognizes the need for women and girls to have full and equal access to and participation in science, has declared Feb. 11 the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. While Canada can borrow innovative approaches and best practices from other countries, to truly be effective, we need made-in-Canada solutions. This means not only ideating on home soil, but bringing Canadian ideas and innovative products to market globally. We’ve seen some successes in the past such as BlackBerry’s business technologies, and more recently Shopify’s e-commerce technology, but we need more, and that will only come from investing in the fresh ideas of our younger generation.

MORE: Why this engineering prof believes high schools are letting down our girls in STEM

We need to listen, invest, and act. Breaking down the barriers girls and women face needs to start by engaging girls in STEM early and often through as many channels as possible. More than that, we need to create a social support and a sense of belonging for girls in these fields. Parents, educators and employers need to adjust their views on gender parity. And our federal and provincial governments need to think critically about their vision for Canada’s future digital economy and the opportunities for more dedicated STEM-based programming for girls and women.

Because we simply can’t afford to sit at 25 per cent anymore.

Jennifer Flanagan is the co-founder, president and CEO of Actua, a national charitable organization that engages Canadian youth in inspiring and innovative science and technology experiences.

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