International Women’s Day: Women in STEM
Posted on March 8, 2023
Today is International Women’s Day. It is a day to pause and take a moment to recognize the women you see every day and the women less visible. Everywhere in the world there are women doing the ordinary and the extraordinary: keeping families and communities together; giving voice to those who can’t speak; standing up for equality and basic human rights; fighting to be themselves in places that would have them be someone else; and pushing the boundaries to continue what their fore-sisters started. Today, Green Calgary is dedicating this Women’s Day post to women in STEM.
Women have a long history in STEM. We know much about the histories of the sciences from the Middle East, West and East Europe, and North America, but women have participated in the sciences, everywhere in the world, for centuries, whether as healers, botanists, or in alchemy (to name a few). Some of the “firsts,” the “grand[fathers],” of science have been women often under-recognized in their fields and unknown by the general public. Stats Canada notes that “although women now account for the majority of university graduates, they are less likely than men to hold a degree in a STEM field of study”. I spoke to two women, Grace Wark and Ivana Ayala, to learn a little about their journey into STEM and what excites them about their fields of study.
It is easy to associate STEM with the idea of complex numbers, lab coats, or great scientific breakthroughs. But as our 2 women will highlight, STEM is more than just quantitative experiments and breaking open the next atom. The field has given each of these women the opportunity to be part of some exciting projects and feel fulfilled in their community involvement. But I’ll let them tell you in their own voice why they do what they love and love what they do:
Grace Wark: I am Green Calgary’s Green Workplace specialist and have a BSc in Environmental Science with a concentration in geography. Growing up I loved biology and biology class, but when it came time to make post-secondary decisions, I wasn't sure what to do. I asked myself, “how would I like to spend my time?” and my initial answer was “be a park ranger, or someone that sits in a fire tower, or anything that allows me to be outside in nature.” I figured why not combine my love of being in nature, enjoying the fresh air, and the bugs and birds with a science degree. This idea brought me to the environmental science program, and it didn’t take long before I knew I wanted to be part of environmental action in my community. At the time, I was feeling a deep sense of fear at the state of the environment and wanted to be where I could take action to protect our climate future. Studying environmental science meant I was able to delve deeper into areas of study I already loved, such as soils. I participated in a field school out at Barrier Lake doing soil samples, tree cores, and invertebrate sampling, which enhanced my love of biology and what I could learn about the environment from it. My degree also took me down an unexpected path. During university I got a job as a research assistant for an open data project. Through this project I realized that science wasn’t only about the quantitative process, but that qualitative research held value to better understand the human perspective and community connection to the quantitative. This helped me realize that making an impact with the community is what I was most interested in. Talking to people about their experiences of how climate change has impacted their lives has become my favorite part of the work I do. I love the feeling of a collective movement from a community. After university I went on to play a role in the Protect AB Parks campaign, working to engage Albertans in the importance of parks as designated protected spaces. I wrote an op-ed in The Narwhal and feel proud of the work I was a part of. I am also proud of the work I did when I was on a committee to protect native prairies. Native prairie lands are the unsung heroes of Alberta for their biodiversity, their role in sequestering carbon, and the peacefulness these spaces offer. It’s important to understand how nature is both functional and emotional, and my combined experiences have helped me share that with others.
Ivana Ayala: I moved to Canada from Pasto Narino, Colombia a year ago. My degree from Colombia is in Environmental Engineering and I am currently taking a Web and Software Development program in Canada. As a kid I liked science and math, and wanted to be a scientist or an astronaut when I grew up, but there wasn’t a lot of consciousness about the environment in my country at that time. It just was not a big topic. When it came time to choose a university path, I was having a hard time deciding between medicine and environmental engineering (which was a new program at the time). After looking into it I realized that I had a lot of skills that fit with the environmental engineering program and decided to take a chance. The degree was new to my university, and I am part of the first environmental engineering graduating class from that school. During my degree I learned about many different areas of engineering, including electronic and systems engineering. By the 5th term all the knowledge from the various classes began to work together, and I developed a strong passion for what I was learning. I loved working with communities and helping with issues around safe water access. My thesis work focused on wetlands, and I did my thesis project on a farm that needed a better system for the water run-off that was entering and contaminating a nearby river. I helped create a wetland that would filter out the run-off from the farm before entering the river. The contamination rate dropped by 95%. The results of this project were published in a scientific article, something I am very proud of. When I moved to Canada I could not start working as an environmental engineer immediately, I am waiting to take the required tests, so while I wait, I decided to explore software development. I became interested in this during COVID when I was spending a lot of time inside with my brother and he was taking software development online. After I got to Canada I found a program, “Women in Technology,” online and learned about software language and development. After that, I decided to try my skills at web development, and I am working through this program now. My dream is to advance my career by combining my two passions, environmental engineering and IT, with my experiences as a professor for diploma exams in Colombia, to create something that helps people live more sustainably in their day to day lives. I have some ideas about how to do this, but they are still developing.
For more women in STEM through history or stats on women in STEM in university, see the links below:
Postsecondary graduates, by International Standard Classification of Education, institution type, Classification of Instructional Programs, STEM and BHASE groupings, status of student in Canada, age group and gender (statcan.gc.ca)