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WOMEN in STTEM: A Conversation with Minister Patricia Hajdu

The following interview between Twila Amato and the Honourable Minister of Employment and Workforce Patricia A Hajdu, took place in 2017 at the opening of BCIT’s new DTC Tech Lab. Since beginning her mandate, Hajdu has been a champion of removing barriers and creating more opportunities for women in Canada to enter the workforce in the fields of Science, Technology, Trades, Engineering and Math (STTEM). LINK took her visit as an opportunity to dive deeper into this topic and find out more about the work our government is doing on this front.

There’s nothing biologically innate about these careers being more perfect for male or female.

What barriers do you see for women entering STTEM programs?
Well, I think the barriers start really in childhood where, you know, we have a culture that still has rigidly defined gender norms… For example, if you walk down the toy aisle for girls, it’s all pink and maybe purple and frilly, and still reinforces gender stereotypes. So I think it starts in the very early years. When parents are talking to their kids about potential futures, and even in those early stages, there’s still a tendency to stereotype girls into care professions. You know the “traditional”  types of professions. There’s also the stereotype that girls are not good at math. If they’re struggling with math, they often drop out rather than [access] the supports in place to help them succeed like other students.

We know that more women than ever are entering STTEM, but when they graduate from those careers, regardless of what field they go into, they’re often entering fields that are still very male-dominated and they’re experiencing subtle discrimination, sometimes overt harassment in the workplace. The mining sector for example… 4% or 5% of people in the mining sector are women. And when you speak to women that are resolutely staying in that sector, they say it’s really difficult because they often don’t experience the same kind of respect as their colleagues. And that happens in even more mainstream sectors, like law and finance, where women have told me that the expectations around women, the sexism, and the lack of gender awareness, will make them decide to pursue different careers. So we’re really missing out as a society.

What do you think we can do to encourage women and make STTEM a little more enticing for them?
Well, I think part of it is changing the narrative. And we’re trying to do that as a country and, I think, as a society – to say that women can have success in STTEM. There’s nothing biologically innate about these careers being more perfect for male or female. There certainly are roles where the government can intersect by providing support, which we do now, around making sure that women have opportunities in those fields. But I think it’s not about incentivizing women; I actually think it’s about incentivizing men. And I think for a long time – well, I think, forever – we expect often that the most vulnerable, or the people that are the targets of the stereotypes, to overcome those stereotypes, when in fact, what we should be saying to men and to male-dominated fields is, “Do better. We expect you to do better, the economy expects you to do better.” Boards need to demand returns that are often higher when there’s a more diverse workforce.

We need to convince the men in those spaces that there’s a benefit to ensuring that women succeed.

You mentioned government initiatives on encouraging women to get into STTEM. Can you speak a little more about that?
Well as I said, I think it’s important to start breaking down stereotypes that exist in our culture. So we’ve tried to do that. The Prime Minister has been a huge sponsor as you know of gender equality through appointing women to cabinet in the same quantity as men – so a gender-balanced cabinet. Leadership is important at a national level. I’m the Minister of Employment – it’s a fairly male-dominated ministry, actually. Not the bureaucrats, but in terms of ministers across the world. I was just at the G20 and I think there were four women in that space…

So I think we can take steps in terms of demonstrating leadership. But as I said, this is really a whole of country, and what we need to do is, we need to convince the men in those spaces that there’s a benefit to ensuring that women succeed in those spaces. And one of the ways that we do that is by showing the return on investment for actually having diversity programs, for equity in employment, but also making sure that women have the same opportunities to succeed as they move through their careers.

Right, so will that include scholarships, bursaries, or even maybe trying to even out the pay gaps between men and women?
Yes. I’m mandated to work on the gender wage gap, so we’ve actually just agreed to introduce pay equity at the federal level. I can only control the Canada labour code; I can’t control the provinces and what they do. But we can show leadership, as a country, and we can say that we believe that companies that are federally regulated have to pay for work of equal value the same. So we’re doing that.

But that is not the only thing that will close the gender wage gap; it’s about making sure that women have the opportunity to lead in the same way that men do, that women have an opportunity to enter those careers. So you can see what BCIT is doing, is they’re actually leaning in and looking at their recruitment practices. ‘How can we actually ensure that women are aware of the courses that we’re offering, that see themselves in those courses, that have the supports they need to succeed.’ It’s not going to be one policy initiative, there are a number of initiatives through the government, through the Minister of Status of Women’s role, that provide grants to organizations that specifically work with women of all ages to make sure that we are breaking down those gender stereotypes, that women do have opportunities through civic engagement. There’s organizations that support women in politics, like Equal Voice, to take their seat in the House and gain those skills that they need to enter those fields.

What role do you see post-secondary institutions like BCIT having in the growing tech industry?
Oh this is really critical, what’s happening here at BCIT. One of the things that I was immediately struck by was the link to real-time clients and the real applicability of what they’re learning to the current workforce. And as the Minister of Employment, that’s something I hear all the time from employers: “These students are coming out and they have a lot of knowledge, but they don’t know how to apply their knowledge to the real-life settings.” So one of the things that BCIT is doing so well is integrating the learning with the needs of actual clients. To be able to tour through a program that’s specifically redesigning websites for real-life clients – and clients have to be a part of that program – that’s a brilliant way to make sure that what students are learning is going to be applicable immediately. And then to have work-integrated learning, where people go on co-op placements and working and learning and solving problems that are real-time, that’s addressing a need that employers are talking about across the country.

People want to move around the world and use their skills.

I know there’s also the Global Talent Stream and it is important, but what is the government doing to develop highly skilled workers here in the country, as well as BC, where the industry actually is? Because we have all these students coming out and they have all these skills…
Absolutely. Well, two things. One: we need the Global Talent Stream right now because we don’t have many of these very, very skilled professionals in our country. These are very specific skills and maybe in some cases, there might be four or five individuals across the world that have those specific skills.

Like someone I heard today, a company talking about someone who has expertise in Quantum Physics… There are not a lot of professors of Quantum Physics, or people working in that space in Canada. So we do have to support companies that need to bring in these very specialized individuals, because what they do is then help that company get to the next level of growth and hire students just like the ones you see today who are going to be growing into those more senior skillsets but need a place to start. So that’s one thing.

But the other thing I think is, we’ve got a huge investment in science like we haven’t had in over a decade. We’re working to make sure that we have investments in innovation clusters across the country and various different sectors. This will attract people to want to study those things, want to apply those things, and will help grow our own talent pool. Because I completely agree with you: how could we become more self-sufficient?

There will always be a global movement; we live in a world now that really has (aside from some of the rhetoric we’ve heard)  very high mobility, and people want to move around the world and use their skills. But we’ve heard your concern as well, that we also have to be focused on growing our own talent stream, so a number of initiatives across the government will make sure we’re better positioned to do that.

Visit the minister online to learn more about her mandate and initiatives, or to connect with her about any questions or ideas you might have for the future of women in STTEM.

Check out a few photos from our series on BCIT Women in S.T.T.E.M. featured in our April 2018.