Women role models hope to inspire students in STEM

The McGill Students Chapter for Scientista and McGill Women in Leadership Students’ Association hosted their third annual Women in STEM Panel and Roundtable event on March 12, welcoming a set of eight accomplished scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. The panellists proved as adept at inviting discussion as they are at conducting research. The event encouraged an open dialogue in which students and experts shared their professional and personal struggles as women in the fields of science and technology.

The event provided an opportunity for women, people of colour, and other marginalized students’ identities on campus to network with established professionals in science and technology fields. They were able to express sentiments of solidarity and community, and seek advice for addressing the multitude of obstacles that disadvantaged students in STEM fields face. In an email to The McGill Tribune, Danielle Nadin, the co-director of Scientista McGill, vouched for the importance of creating inclusive spaces where STEM students can share stories and connect over similar experiences.  

“One thing we really want to do with Scientista is reduce isolation and help students who feel marginalized find their allies,” Nadin said. “We didn’t want a glossy, formal, inaccessible panel. We wanted to create a space where people felt comfortable sharing their experiences.”

Ensuring representation and advocacy for students of colour and women becomes more complex in PhD and master’s programs, as the increasingly independent work may intensify feelings of isolation. Even at the undergraduate level, the experience of being a visible minority is not an uncommon one, especially for engineering students. During the Fall 2018 semester, only 31 per cent of undergraduate engineering students identified as female. This is a particularly significant minority when considering the almost 60 per cent female-identifying students collectively enrolled at McGill.

A recurring sentiment among the panellists was that of imposter syndrome, or unwarranted feelings of self-doubt in positions of leadership. The speakers explained how ordinary workplace challenges are heightened when a person finds themself to be one of few women, non-binary, or people of colour in the lab or classroom.

For many students, this challenge manifests as a constant struggle for representation in their respective fields. To Meryem Benslimane, an equity education advisor at the Office for Social Equity and Diversity (SEDE), representation and connections with mentors can make all the difference for marginalized students in STEM.

“[It’s important that everyone] sees real people and role models,” Benslimane said. “ Especially for women, […] this representation is so important”.

For Elena Lin, a co-director of Scientista McGill, while the event’s success showed progress, it also illuminated the potential for future advancement for women and other marginalized groups in science and technology.

“The evening also revealed just how direly women and minorities in STEM fields need a voice of their own,” Lin said. “There is so much for all of us out there, and we hope that safe spaces can be continually created for everyone in STEM so that everyone can reach their full potential in their respective fields.”

Looking beyond McGill, many of the panellists emphasized the importance of creating opportunities for youth, especially girls in STEM. Without introductory programs in primary and secondary schools, careers in science and technology may seem out of reach for young women.

One panellist, Vanessa Cherenfant, a Montreal-based entrepreneur, industrial engineer, and self-proclaimed ‘STEMinist’, spoke about current initiatives to increase intersectionality in predominantly male and white disciplines. Cherenfant praised Technovation, a Montreal non-profit organization which connects scientists, engineers, and technology professionals with children from underrepresented groups to expose underprivileged youth to the possibility of careers in STEM fields.

From primary school classrooms to universities, it is clear that there is room for the greater involvement of women in STEM. Events such as this one are one means of creating an inclusive space.

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